I am sympathetic to the view that appreciation for the heroic or noble or dignified quality in simultaneously confronting one’s own death and embracing life is a good motivator for dealing with death. But it occurred to me last night that what it is, according to this view, I am supposed to appreciate is not as clear as I would like. I would like to clarify this view here.
Embracing life is clear enough. One embraces life if one values the ephemeral people, experiences, objects, and states of affairs that constitute life. I think, in this sense, most people who do not firmly believe in an afterlife do embrace life. I think, in this sense, I embrace life.
Embracing life is not, on its own, a way of confronting or dealing with mortality, however. By “dealing with mortality,” I do not mean merely not encountering one’s fear of one’s own or others’ death, nor do I mean preparing for the material well-being of others after one’s own or others’ death. I can’t deal with mortality by never thinking of what is terrifying in death, and I can’t deal with mortality by buying life insurance. The metaphor of “looking into the abyss” is helpful. Whether there is little or nothing to “see” in the prospect of imminent death, one who looks into the abyss can, at will, “look at” all there is to see in its every facet. You can deal with death to the extent that you can contemplate all aspects of death: the phenomenology of the various ways of dying – the feeling of drowning, the physical helplessness of being murdered, the mental helplessness of the progression of dementia or Alzheimer’s; the misfortune of others in your absence; the annihilation of the memories and experience you continue to accumulate; the abortion of your life’s ongoing projects. One can deal with mortality (one’s own or others’) when there is nothing about death that one cannot, at will, look at – i.e., bring to mind, reason with, meditate on, believe – indefinitely. On this view, belief in an afterlife is a way of dealing with mortality, if it is, because the believer in the afterlife can think of every aspect of death, as long as she accompanies it with the thought of eternal reward. One way of not dealing with death is to busy oneself with other thoughts or activities when any particularly unsavory thought of death occurs.
Why deal with death, and not simply avoid it? I think there actually aren’t too many reasons, which makes it important to weigh those we have as carefully as we can. If one’s failure to deal with death is of a certain sort, perhaps it will lead you to make irrationally those decisions that aspects of mortality have a rational bearing on. These might be decisions about how to reach your goals, whether to purchase life insurance, or whether to take the interesting-looking drugs in front of you. The value of honesty with oneself is a loftier big reason to deal with death. The other lofty one, I think, is the view that we began this post with. If dealing with death – or, better, “confronting” death in the sense of actually, at a single moment surveying what apparent facts there are to survey in regards to one’s own death – and embracing life at the same time strikes you as a heroic, noble, or exceptionally dignified thing to do, then this itself is a reason to deal with or confront death. I am probably not the only person who sometimes finds the prospects of heroism, nobility, or extreme dignity more motivating than the prospect of heightened honesty with oneself or more rational decision-making.