"Death is never a trick; nature doesn’t play a comedy; instead,
it’s a tragic, colossal and unstoppable drama"...
~Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach, German philosopher
I went to Canada the last week of 2009, it was beyond cold, the kinda cold where you imagine you might die from the elements. So I thought about it and I realized, almost to my surprise, that I would not have traded it in for another life. There had been disappointments, to be sure, but my life appeared to me to have been a meaningful one, a life I did not regret. This is not to say that I was not nearly paralyzed with fear by some of the close calls I have had in my life. Episodes in El Barrio in the early 1990s, encounters in Brasil, drama in Barcelona with some Moroccans that could have ended ugly. I was. At the same time, strangely, my life appeared to me as worth having lived.
There are two lessons here. The first, and most obvious one, is that death is terrifying. Here in the United States, we have the technology to defer death, so we often pretend it will never really happen to us. There is always another procedure, always a cure in sight if not in hand besides the whole "I cannot afford it because I do not have health care" thing. But in our sober moments we recognize that we will indeed die, and that we have precious little control over when it will happen. But if we did not die, if our existence did not unravel in the endless darkness of death, would life be quite so precious, so extraordinary, so moving?
The harm of death goes to the heart of who we are as human beings. We are, in essence, forward-looking creatures. We create our lives prospectively. We build relationships, careers, and projects that are not solely of the moment but that have a future in our vision of them. One of the reasons Eastern philosophies have developed techniques to train us to be in the moment is that that is not our natural state. We are pulled toward the future, and see the meaning of what we do now in its light.Death extinguishes that light. And because we know that we will die, and yet we don’t know when, the darkness that is ultimately ahead of each of us is with us at every moment. There is, we might say, a tunnel at the end of this light. And since we are creatures of the future, the darkness of death offends us in our very being. We may come to terms with it when we grow old, but unless our lives have become a burden to us coming to terms is the best we can hope for.
The second, less obvious lesson of this moment of facing death is that in order for our lives to have a shape, in order that they not become formless, we need to die. This will strike some as counterintuitive, even a little ridiculous. But in order to recognize its truth, we should reflect a bit on what immortality might mean. Immortality lasts a long time. It is not for nothing that in his story “The Immortal” Jorge Luis Borges pictures the immortal characters as unconcerned with their lives or their surroundings. Once you’ve followed your passion — playing the saxophone, loving men or women, traveling, writing poetry — for, say, 10,000 years, it will likely begin to lose its grip. There may be more to say or to do than anyone can ever accomplish. But each of us develops particular interests, engages in particular pursuits. When we have been at them long enough, we are likely to find ourselves just filling time. In the case of immortality, an inexhaustible period of time.
And when there is always time for everything, there is no urgency for anything. It may well be that life is not long enough. But it is equally true that a life without limits would lose the beauty of its moments. It would become boring, but more deeply it would become shapeless. Just one damn thing after another. This is the paradox death imposes upon us: it grants us the possibility of a meaningful life even as it takes it away. It gives us the promise of each moment, even as it threatens to steal that moment, or at least reminds us that some time our moments will be gone. It allows each moment to insist upon itself, because there are only a limited number of them. And none of us knows how many.
I prefer to think that the paradox of death is the source not of despair but instead of the limited hope that is allotted to us as human beings. We cannot live forever, to be sure, but neither would we want to. We ought not to mind the fact that we will die, although we really would rather that it not be today. Probably not tomorrow either. But it is precisely because we cannot control when we will die, and know only that we will, that we can look upon our lives with the seriousness they merit. Death takes away from us no more than it has conferred: lives whose significance lies in the fact they are not always with us. Only Life will reign supreme, the Life of the Beyond, the Life of the ever transcending Beyond. This life is not and cannot be the sole monopoly of an individual. No. Each human being is to be flooded with this Life of the ever-transcending Beyond, for it is here in this Life Divine that God will manifest Himself unreservedly-here, here on earth. Our happiness lies in being able to inhabit that fact..."For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?" (Kahlil Gibran).