What does it mean to contemplate death? Does thinking about death help us to live more fully? Can we ever really be prepared for the eventuality of death? What does it mean to live a good life knowing that our days are numbered?
Unintentionally, each of the texts in our fall Polis courses has death as a theme. Who would have thought that it could actually be enjoyable to sit at a seminar table with a group of strangers and dig deeply into questions about mortality? The craft beer selections certainly helped to make the atmosphere a little bit more festive in the midst of these otherwise weighty themes!
Discussing literature and philosophy can serve an important role in our lives. Dialogue about big ideas can be a catalyst for reflection about living in the face of an acknowledgment of mortality.
Living a Full Life. How Should We Spend Our Time?
This Sunday’s New York Times included a thought-provoking Opinion piece about what it means to live with an acceptance of death. The author, a 36-year-old neurosurgeon at Stanford was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. He contemplates what it means to live his life with the certainty that he is going to die but the continuing uncertainty of when.
The author’s first and most persistent question upon learning his diagnosis is rooted in a deep desire to know, “How long do I have left?”. Somehow, he thought, knowing an answer to this question would give him a rudder about how to live well.
The author considers his choices for how to spend his time:
In a way, though, the certainty of death was easier than this uncertain life. Didn’t those in purgatory prefer to go to hell, and just be done with it? Was I supposed to be making funeral arrangements? Devoting myself to my wife, my parents, my brothers, my friends, my adorable niece? Writing the book I had always wanted to write? Or was I supposed to go back to negotiating my multiyear job offers?
He struggles with and works to elucidate his sense of “acuteness” in knowing that he is going to die.
I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.
The author’s courage to publicly grapple with his feelings about his own mortality is commendable. The piece brings readers into contact with so many of the themes about living and dying that arose in our Polis classes last semester.
How Can Literature and Philosophy Guide Us?
Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life. Is it possible you can imagine never to arrive at the place towards which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey but hath its end. And, if company will make it more pleasant or more easy to you, does not all the world go the self-same way? Does not all the world dance the same brawl that you do? Is there anything that does not grow old, as well as you? A thousand men, a thousand animals, a thousand other creatures, die at the same moment that you die.
How can we live a full and meaningful life despite it’s length?
Joyce describes the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy’s, inner battle to accept the realities of his past:
He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed him.
Polis students asked: Can we have a meaningful life even if we are “struggling against fortune”? How much of life is ours to control and how much is beyond our reach?
In the “Death of Ivan Ilych”, Ivan is forced to reckon with his imminent mortality with a recognition that he has not lived the type of life he could have because he was too focused on the “ought’s” and “should’s” of other people’s expectations. Tolstoy writes:
Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.”
During the discussion of Tolstoy’s work, a Polis student asked, “I get it–he lived a life according to other’s expectations–but what is it that he would have done differently? What could have made Ivan feel that he had lived a full and good life as he lay on his death bed?”
Diving deeply into literature and philosophy won’t help us to find THE answer to questions about the good life and an acceptance of death but discussions like those at Polis can help us to stop, briefly, on the treadmill of our daily routine and ask, “Am I living as I want to? Am I living as fully as I could? Am I adding meaning to my life and the lives of others?”
The philosopher Anaïs Nin writes: “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” – The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934
Our life as an individual novel, a book for each person.
Interested in Reading More?
“Living Well, According to Some of the Wisest People Who Ever Lived“,Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post,Aug. 28, 2013