We tend to see death as the enemy, but our lives would be far less meaningful and appealing were it not for the fact that they will end.
Living is a painful exercise. It is, deep at its core, a never-ending struggle to fend off each of the all-pervasive sources of suffering, of misery, of distress and anguish, of fears and tears and torment and grief. We are constantly left wondering what’s the point of it all—to go through that when, in the end, there’s only one final step awaiting us all, regardless of our success or our happiness or goodness or merit. How could death possibly give life any meaning? Doesn’t death, in and by itself, deprive us of the very reason that makes it all worth it, of ever-lasting transcendence?
It’s true we often see death as a stranger, an uninvited guest that occasionally peeks through the looking glass. After all, what could we possibly know about death and its innermost meaning, if it is elusive during all our lives and appears only when we no longer are? How is it not merely an unwelcome alien whose very purpose is to impose its evil will and whim?
But we rush. Perhaps we judge death too harshly. It’s possible death is not as distant as we—usually the young ones—often believe. Not only do we have to face the death of many whom we care about—from pets to friends and family—, but, whether consciously or otherwise, we must also confront the fact that we ourselves are mortal: forever in danger, always at risk. Every fibre of our being is wired to deal with this driving fact of life: we eat, we sleep, and we are terribly afraid and constantly informed by our instinct to survive. Deep in our most basic essence, we are constituted by death itself, and we’re driven by our voracious thirst to escape it.
So, death is hardly a stranger to its living counterpart. Quite the contrary. As Haruki Murakami wrote, “Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of it. By living our lives, we nurture death.” When all is said and done, it’s quite unavoidable to see demise in terms of the very meaning of life. That intractable question, Why do we live?, arises from the backdrop of death itself.
Sure, death is not the only thing that gives meaning to our lives. Perhaps death is not even necessary for our lives to have some meaning, but it is indeed important as the source of central significance in various ways. In what follows, for those who wonder, you’ll find some examples.
It makes life rarer (and thus more valuable)
When there’s a limited number of minutes available in a life, each one of them is worth more than if they were endless. In other words, time becomes a valuable “commodity.” It’s not hard to imagine that if there were an infinite number of hours during a lifetime, a single hour, or even a single century wouldn’t be particularly relevant. Think of other items in this world ruled by supply and demand: say, the more apples there are, the less expensive each will be. We value that which is rare (consider how much value we put on unique works of art or on special editions), especially when it’s also something we need—and how could we ever not need time?
It makes us appreciate time
The moment we realize how valuable each minute is, we begin to appreciate rather than take them for granted. So not only is every second, minute and hour worth more, but it counts for more as well. It’s because we know time is limited that we can even worry we might be wasting it.
It forces us to act
Knowing we can’t postpone things forever motivates us to actually get them done at some point. Every procrastinator knows the importance of deadlines and of feeling the pressure of that coming due date. Since we’re all on the Ultimate Deadline, death forces us all into taking action as soon as possible.
It motivates us to appreciate the presence of others
It’s not just about our own time in this world, but our loved ones' as well. Too often we regret not saying that one word or expressing that one thought after someone dies, so we ought to acknowledge that people still here deserve our appreciation just for that fact. In other words, knowing that others will die should prevent us from taking them for granted. In this way, we give other people’s life far more meaning.
It pushes us to find meaning in the first place
The awareness of death, the ever-constant knowledge that we are going to die eventually, immediately provides a very strong motivation to make sense of the time we do have here. If there were no alternative to our being alive, if life were a necessary and always-present feature of existence, we’d be offered little reason to question it. But since life seems meaningless when confronted by death, were death all that follows life, then we are violently thrown into the revolutionary quest of finding meaning. How could we not, if we have an instinctive desire to live on the one hand and to assign meaning to things on the other? The combination of these two is a supremely powerful force of human nature.
It makes us get the most out of our experiences
Experiences, like time, are limited in the face of death. The fact we’re going to die makes a compelling argument for the case that every experience should be maximized. In other words, we would do well to take as much advantage as possible out of each and every one of our—very numbered—experiences.
It is necessary for life as we know it
Life on this planet, as it has developed so far, depends on death for its existence. The death of some organisms is pivotal to sustain the life of others. Whether it’s plant life or animal life, all benefit from death at some point or another. And even if a species were able to sustain itself from inorganic materials alone, it’s still the case that any given species arose through a process of evolution which required billions upon billions of previous deaths. Ignore everything else and, all the same, we're still left naked with the simple truth that human meaning as such is only possible because death is all around us, whether we acknowledge it or not. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reduce death and suffering as much as possible, but we cannot ignore the (often terrifying) mechanisms of the natural world.
It keeps society and the living cycle going
Death can act as a refresher for humanity and the natural world as a whole. Not only has life benefitted from death in terms of evolution and sustenance, but it also allows for new ideas and trends. It makes space for new tendencies, new systems, new adventures, new inventions, and ultimately, for progress. A full life, followed by new generations to develop what has been accomplished, can bring about incredible results.
It makes us care—or at least think—about what we leave behind
Looking for ways to transcend and leave a mark is only fueled by the fact that one day we won’t be here at all. It’s been a constant concern for humanity to think about what the next generation will inherit. The way many think about their kids is a prime example: throughout history, dynastic heritage has been at the forefront of priorities for a given family. But even without offspring, we often measure the meaning of our life in terms of what we did for society. Dying with the belief that we made the world a better place is the epitome of a tranquil passing, and those who lead their lives under the premise of being remembered as good (or great) people find all the meaning they need. How others will remember us is a common parameter for how we want to live.
It gives us customs, rituals, traditions and festivities
Finally, death is so ubiquitous and such a deep concern for human life that our history can be pretty much reduced to the way in which we cope with finality—in religion, in art, in philosophy, in politics. This has a rather fortunate side effect: every civilization has been exceedingly prolific in producing celebrations and rituals surrounding our fateful ends. Diverse funeral rites, symbolic traditions such as Halloween, colorful festivities like Day of the Dead, majestic tombs and picturesque cemeteries to commemorate our ancestors are but a few examples of the immense cultural heritage inspired by death. Life is more interesting, more fun and more touching with these enchanting elements, and that alone suffices to show how death gives life so much meaning.
In the end, I'm reminded of Steve Jobs' famous words regarding his death, which fit our finale perfectly:
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Other articles that might interest you: