Wednesday, June 25, 2014

On Living Life and Accepting Death

  photo by Lari Huttunen (cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

I don’t believe in an afterlife, which means I do believe in death. It shouldn’t be such a strange thing to believe life ends in death, but most people believe or at least hope for more. Death denial is an understandable impulse; sometimes it even extends to family pets, but less often to other animals. We want ourselves and those we care about to carry on. We won’t. They won’t.

Does the reality of death mean life doesn’t matter? No, it means life is the only thing that matters. You get once chance to exist and it’s happening now. Now is the time to love, the time to learn, the time to create, the time to enjoy yourself and choose to either bring comfort or suffering to others.

What about jerks who prosper in life and kind people who live hard lives? Doesn’t the reality of death mean the world is unjust? Yes. That may sound harsh, but how kind is it to tell people that the suffering and deaths of their loved ones is for the best? It can be disheartening to know we can’t make everything better, but what we can do matters all the more because there’s no other help on the way.

Besides, popular alternatives tend to be worse. At least suffering and injustice end along with life. Mainstream Christian and Muslim beliefs promise unending joy for a select few and unending suffering for most people. That’s solving a house fire with an atom bomb.

Why not just have as much pleasure in life as possible and forget about other people? Well, there’s nothing wrong with pleasure. Pleasure is great and it comes in many satisfying forms! As a loved one says: “No time enjoyed is entirely wasted.” As for ignoring the suffering of other people, moral philosophers have tried in vain to find a reason for completely selfish people to care about others. You have to start with caring a little. Thankfully, most of us do. We don’t have to solve whole categories of suffering on our own; we can cooperate with others, working within the limits of our imperfect empathy and our incomplete understanding to make our lives a little better.

“If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.”

— Emily Dickinson