What’s the Matter with Death?
Reading a book about the philosophy of the mid-life crisis is comparable to being on the receiving end of targeted advertising for Rogaine. You instinctively resent the fact that you now represent a category of humanity for whom this could even plausibly be relevant. Alas, haughty resentment is about as useful in stalling the clock as it is in stimulating long dormant hair follicles. I have thus far resisted the siren call of Rogaine. Mid-life philosophy books? Evidently not.
I have, as mentioned in my previous post, been making my way through MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya’s Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. In a chapter I read this morning, Setiya pondered the mysteries of death—our aversion to it, our fear of the unknown, our desire for immortality, and what it all might mean. Mid-life is a time when death moves from the category of “remote abstraction” to “harder-to-avoid reality.” All of a sudden it seems closer than it has for most of your preceding years. You find yourself attending more funerals. You start to do weird things like exercise and eat green things in an attempt to forestall it. And you just think about it more. What does it mean? What, if anything is its reality and inevitability meant to teach us?
For Setiya, philosophy can help when it comes to our fear of death by showing us that it is at least somewhat irrational. To do this, he asks us to ponder the time before we were born. We don’t spend a great deal of time agonizing about pre-mortal non-existence. We shed few tears for the time before we came to be, even if we are pleased to imagine that the world is immeasurably better for our involvement in proceedings. So, for the sake of symmetry, the same should be true for non-existence on the other end of life’s continuum, right? Logic would seem to demand it. I suspect it is these sorts of dreary analyses that make philosophers unpopular.
Most of us sense, on some level, that mysteries of life and death and time and pleasure and sorrow and love and agony cannot be so easily reduced to a logical formula. Non-existence is not some impersonal variable that can be dropped into a logical equation to see how the sums come out. And of course, it sort of matters that non-existence on the back end of a human life comes after a whole set of experiences that are not part of the equation at the other end. We resist death not so much because we fear non-existence but because, in the best-case scenarios, we grieve the loss of the ability to love and to be loved, to experience beauty and make some small contribution to it. There’s something about the character of this time in between non-existences that makes life precious and sacred. Something we believe should not end.
Ah, but what about scenarios that are far from best-case? What about lives that are wretched and poor and full of suffering? What about lives that are wasted on cruelty and neglect of those around them? Last night I watched Viggo Mortensen’s latest film Falling which tells the story of a middle-aged man walking with his father through the fog of dementia. His father is a genuinely horrible human being (played devastatingly well by Lance Henriksen). He is verbally abusive, selfish, short-sighted, intolerant. He has a fierce temper and shows little inclination to even attempt to restrain it. He is by any reasonable standard a terrible father and a worse husband. And he was all of these things before dementia added confusion and chaos to the toxic cocktail. What of a life like this? Can such a life point beyond itself? By the end of the movie, I was hoping the guy would die if only so he would stop causing so much pain to those around him.
The Christian conviction is that life is a gift of God. This gift can be (and regularly is) misused and abused, often with devastating consequences for those in the blast radius (as was excruciatingly evident in Falling). Which is why this basic conviction is paired with the hope that there is nothing so terrible that human beings endure that cannot somehow be redeemed. This, too, is surely one of the reasons why human beings have long been convinced that there is something beyond death. Not just because we’re having such a good time and we want the party to continue but also because we are convinced that there are wrongs that must be made right, that there is suffering that that must be redeemed, that there are wounds that must be healed. It’s not just the good things about life that point to eternity, after all.
Last year, I read a piece on death in the New York Times. It was an interview with Karen Teel, a member of the department of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego and, if memory serves, a practicing Roman Catholic who had lost her mother to ALS. Near the end of the interview was asked what she would say if it turned out that her belief in an afterlife turned out to be wrong. Would it render life meaningless? Her response has stuck with me ever since I first read it:
No. I don’t believe that life matters because it continues. I believe that life continues because it matters.
I like that way of putting it. Life continues because it matters. It matters when it is embraced and adds love to the world. It also matters when it is misused and is a source of pain. This is why the mystery of death and what comes next can never be a mere variable in a logical formula. Logic, on its own, doesn’t know what to do with a word like “matters” or why the things that matter to us ought to matter at all.