Sunday, March 26, 2017

John Kaag and Clancy Martin: Looking Death in the Face

Philosophy professors John Kaag and Clancy Martin write eloquently about how a death 3000 years ago can inspire us to think about life.

We tend to defer the question of living or dying well until it’s too late to answer. This might be the scariest thing about death: coming to die only to discover, in Thoreau’s words, that we haven’t lived.

Facing death, though, is rarely simple. We avoid it because we can. It’s easier to think of “dying” as an adjective than a verb, as in a dying patient or one’s dying words. This allows us to pretend that dying is something that is going to happen in some distant future, at some other point in time, to some other person. But not to us. At least not right now. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not even next decade. A lifetime from now.

Dying, of course, corresponds exactly with what we prefer to call living. This is what Samuel Beckett meant when he observed that we “give birth astride the grave.” It is an existential realization that may seem to be the province of the very sick or very old. The elderly get to watch the young and oblivious squander their days, time that they now recognize as incredibly precious.

When dying finally delivers us to our unexpected, inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. Dying for something has a heroic ring to it. But really it’s the easiest thing in the world and has little to do with fame and fortune. When you wake up and eat your toast, you are dying for something. When you drive to work, you’re dying for something. When you exchange meaningless pleasantries with your colleagues, you’re dying for something. As surely as time passes, we human beings are dying for something. The trick to dying for something is picking the right something, day after week after precious year. And this is incredibly hard and decidedly not inevitable.

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