Death, Love and Meaning

19 Jul 2004, Posted by Alexandros in Writings

There are two ways to look at death. From the inside, death can be defined as the cessation of all conscious experience. Thus, when we have dreamless nights, sleeping is identical to death. From the outside, death does not have clear boundaries. A person in a coma is technically alive, but the meaning of the term is obviously altered in such a situation. A person who is inflexible, does not talk much, we call “not a lively person”. Once somebody loses the ability to communicate and to move (the one being depended on the other, since communication necessarily depends on some motion, be it the fluttering of an eyelid or the movement of lips) he is starting to lose the characteristics that define a living human being. A heartbeat doesn’t make a man.

In such a scenario, human beings tend to interpret any motion as a sign of communication. When we’re interacting with a normal human being, we rarely take any movement of the arms, or any look as an effort for communication. True, body language says much, but it isn’t always talking.

But our urge for communication with someone we love tends to make us cling on every motion however slight, and gives it the meaning we desire. A hand that moved, a sly smile, a sigh; strictly speaking we cannot be certain as to the significance of these movements; maybe they have none, maybe they mean everything. In normal life we can ask the person; but under such circumstances, this is impossible, and we are left with guessing. Ancillary information also plays a role; if somebody is brain dead, we tend to think that his motions are merely mechanical. But if we know the other person has the capacity, but is unable to exhibit it at all times, then with the utmost vigilance, we try to distinguish between the movements that were accidental and the ones that were meaningful.

A human being in love, finds meaning in everything the beloved does. This is why no human in love ever considers the meaning of life. To him, it is obvious. But the beloved hardly ever ‘means’ everything that the lover ascribes to him. Most of us have painfully experienced this. But it is not as easy for ill people to make us feel this painful experience we feel when our interpretations as to what the beloved means are proven wrong; the pain they cause is even more severe, for they leave us in uncertainty; if the pain of unrequited love is said to be the greatest, one wonders how great that of not even in principle being able to find out can be. But usually this doesn’t happen, for the ill person is usually surrounded by the persons whom he loved and had been loved in return. However, we should remind ourselves that when we’re in love, we tend to be mistaken as to most of the things that a beloved ‘means’, and if it happens in normal circumstances, I see no reason why it shouldn’t happen, and possibly in a greater degree, in the unfortunate circumstances of illness.

So death sometimes is blurry, and the dead are not only found in graves; but in beds too; or rather, their beds have become their graves.

How are such conditions from the inside? It is hard to tell. Many people prefer death than such conditions. To be able to watch life without being able to participate in some way in it, seems to be a very dismal predicament. Though one can never be certain as to one’s reaction in such conditions. I can imagine, for instance, that provided I can write and think, I will find some consolation in such a wretched condition. In fact, isn’t old age such a predicament? I’ll guess I’ll find out sooner or later. In certain Native American tribes, when people reach a certain age, they say goodbye to their loved ones and leave for the mountains to die a dignified death. There is something to admire in such an act; there is also something to regret. Each of one has to make a choice.

But in all the cases I’m assuming that there is awareness of the condition. This, however, is not always the case. If someone is not aware of his condition, are we really talking about someone then? Or has his condition deprived him of personhood? It’s really a hard judgement to make, but once most characteristics that define a person wither away, it is hard to keep to the notion that the human we have in front of us can be the person we once knew. In such cases, when we’ve literally become a living thing, perhaps it’s better we are given peace rather than lose our dignity.

La Rochefoucauld writes “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily”1 and how right he is. No matter what lame or noble excuses you make, death is something inconsolable. Pain we can endure, but extinction? Though I cannot rule a priori that death is unconquerable, since science has conquered previously thought unconquerable things while some mystical traditions claim it is a sort of illusion or stage, it does seem to be the ultimate hurdle. Death is the living refutation of a benevolent, all-powerful God. On second thoughts, old age would do as much. For if no accidents occur, by the time death knocks at our door he is a welcomed visitor. We grow up, and just about when we’re the wisest, we are deprived of all the vitality that is necessary to put it to use. It is indeed a cruel joke, that we die to get rid off.

Ponder death for some time and everything around you will start acquiring value. Enemies will be loved, grudges will be forgiven, lovers will find their former ardour, and all that was lost, will rise again, whether in truth or in memory. The thought of death, like a common external threat, unites all factions and gives a sense of solidarity no other thought can offer. In fact, it is partly because of the thought of death that I’m inclined to write these essays. It is a testament to the common human condition, that when death is near, we think of love. Our love for men and women, of places, of activities, of experiences of everything that made life worth living. The antithesis of death, is therefore not life but love; or rather the good life. Thoughts about death remind us of what is important. Of the things we haven’t said. Of the things we have. Of what we did. Of what we did not. Thus, if in doubt, think of death – he will tell you what to do.

People who do not want to think about death are missing such a variety of beneficial experiences and thoughts. They reach the end of their lives when necessity forces the thoughts of death in their minds, but by then it is too late to heed to their guidance. They will die disappointed. This is why it is important to make death part of our education. We shouldn’t simply shrug it off by placing our faith in science. Just as it is wrong to judge a priori that death is unconquerable, so it is much worse to believe that he’ll be conquered in your life time. The latter is based on experience, the other on faith. Though death is encountered daily (the 8 o’clock news is sufficient) it is not pondered on. The natural world was encountered daily for thousands of years, yet it was only with the Greeks that people started thinking critically about it. Encounter is not enough – thinking is required. The Greeks thought about it. In the Iliad, the enemies are not dehumanized. Usually, before every war the enemy is dehumanized so that the troops would have no qualms when killing. But present him in all his splendor, show his achievements, his pride, his courage; that would make them think twice. For human beings, despite their differences, are all subject to suffering and death. That, is the human condition according to the Greeks. Not to mention that they had a clear idea of the absurdity of it all, as we can see from their tragedies. An education on death is therefore needed if we are to raise men out of children that know how to live; that know how, when and for what to die for.

 


Notes:

1. Maxims *, section 26.

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