The lessons of death for life

“Death is the price we pay for our life, and for everyone else’s life” Ursula Le Guin, The Farthest Shore

The sad news about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs seems to have got us all thinking about death. He was only 56, an age which many of us would now regard as the prime of life. He was a man who lived life to the full, who knew for some time that he would die early, and faced it calmly, with boundless courage and dignity.

The fact that we will die is just about the most important thing to be conscious of in life. It has been intimately tied up with religion for millennia, with many promoting the belief that there is an afterlife, maybe some sort of judgement, perhaps redemption. This can be comforting to some, but I personally do not believe in any sort of afterlife (a view I think I share with Mr Jobs). Death is the end for us and we have to make sense of things as they are without any such help.

And none of us know when this moment will come. A few years ago, my friend Chris was killed suddenly in car accident aged 38, leaving a wife and two young sons behind. Like most others, as I get older, I know of more and more people who have died. Hey, I’m 42 now, only 14 years younger than Steve Jobs.

So we must live this life in the knowledge that it is transitory. We are here for a while, then that’s it, we are gone and won’t know or experience anything ever again. If I think deeply about this, it’s scary – a chasm opens up that says this life and everything connected with it is meaningless. I will die one day and won’t know anything afterwards, and one day presumably the human race itself will go extinct and that will be that. No wonder we fill our lives with activity, any activity, any sort of trivia, with anything to stop us reflecting on this too deeply. It took the genius of T.S. Eliot to express it perfectly – “humankind/ cannot bear very much reality.” (Four Quartets)

So, what are we going to do? Cower in a corner and give up on life because it will end one day? Of course not. What we must do is spend time doing things we enjoy and find worthwhile. Each of us will find this in different places – perhaps in music, visual art, the company of family and friends, raising our children, nurturing our marriage, sport, study, blogging (!), business, charitable work, teaching, or somewhere else. These may conflict with each other, and resolving these conflicts is not easy. But it is important that, if we can, we work out properly what it is for us that gives us fulfilment, what we are excited about.

Many, for various reasons, have little choice in how they spend their lives. But for those of us who do, it is vital that we take control and not simply drift, or let our priorities be dictated by others. I am conscious, writing this, that I have done both in the past. But I, and we, need to focus on living our own life as fully as possible. It is too fleeting and precious to be spent any other way.

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