Death and the Art of Living
As one gets older, it is harder to ignore the inevitable approach of death. The young, if they are lucky, live as though there were no tomorrow. The days seem to stretch out before them in an endless line. Of course, no one is too young to die. Accidents, wars, famine and disease carry off many individuals before they feel the approach of old age and decrepitude. Still, to an older person, it appears that the young live as though life will never end. They often seem to be wasting their time, idling through their days without a care for the future. Older people are partly envious of the young, but they also recognize that, for them, there is no time to waste.
The phenomenology of aging and death is the unfolding of time in a person’s life. When we are very young, tomorrow is what matters, or perhaps the day after that. One cannot wait for one’s birthday, for graduation into the wide world, for love and romance, making a living, having a family, and attaining respect as an adult in an adult’s world. Thoughts of the end rarely intrude, unless, perhaps, some religious teaching reminds one of it. Indeed, it is in religion that death takes a starring role, reminding the faithful of their common lot, and perhaps of a world beyond this one in which death shall be no more. Still, for a young person, even a reminder of death, like a skull, is more likely to be a paperweight or a scary curiosity than a catalyst for serious thoughts about death.
So as time unfolds, the trail of the past gets longer and longer, while the future gets shorter and shorter. In the blink of an eye, the time comes to look back on one’s life and ask what it all meant. For philosophers, and those who are philosophically minded, this question cannot be avoided by embracing a dogmatic creed that tells us in advance the meaning of human life. Thinking about death and the art of living will help us with the question of what life means after it has been lived.
Every person has a choice to make in the manner in which he or she lives toward death, though no choice in living toward that end. One choice is to ignore death as long as possible, pretending that life will go on and on. Another choice is to see only the black dog of death, robbing us of all the transitory pleasures of life and the joys of the day. Choosing this, the prospect of death robs life of its very meaning. But while one worries about death, life slips by unlived.
There is living, and then there is living well. The art of living is about living well, steering a course somewhere between ignoring death and obsessing about it. The fact is that though we will most probably experience dying, we will never experience death itself. Whatever death is or is not, we always approach but never reach it. This fact must be faced if we are to acquire the art of living well. All we will ever know is life, and with this realization comes the awareness that the present moment is all we presently have. The past is gone and the future never arrives except as a later present. So the art of living takes death on board, but does not allow the thought of it to sour the moment.
At the same time, awareness of death as the horizon of life ought not to be forgotten, since this thought gives relish to life. In fact, it may be that the prospect of living endlessly on and on is more effective in robbing life of meaning and joy than the thought of personal extinction. The art of living involves seeing death as an impetus to life, to living each moment in its fullness. This is why, I believe, Spinoza said that there is nothing the wise person thinks of so little as death. He is not telling us to live in ignorance of death, but rather to see that it is our lives we must cherish and celebrate, for that is all we will ever have.