In much of the Western world, we live dangling between the jaws of contradictory messages about death. Sometimes we are urged to embrace its inevitability, to “live like you were dying,” but the primary backdrop belief is that aging, illness, and death are mistakes, failures, problems we can correct or avoid if we just do life correctly. Very few of us explicitly make efforts to become immortal, cryogenically preserving brains and whatnot. But we often live as if we think that, if we are determined and “good” enough, we can unlock the secret that will permit us to escape the ending that, intellectually, we know to be inevitable.
One of the clearest signs of this death denial is what we say to one another when death comes. Although some deaths are obviously regarded as more untimely than others, it sometimes seems as if ANY death is to be regarded as tragic. I have been struck, for example, by references to the passing of nonagenarian grandparents as “tragic,” or to the terminal diagnosis of an octogenarian as “unfair” because — get this — the man was “still in his prime.” Although we may retain some notion of a “good death” — passing peacefully in one’s sleep at a very ripe age seems to be the gold standard — for the most part, any death, it seems, can be taken to signal that something has gone terribly wrong biologically, spiritually, ethically, or practically.
This death denial is, of course, linked to common attitudes toward aging. As Carrie Fisher famously said, “Please stop judging me about whether or not I aged well. Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. They are the happy by-products of time and/or DNA.” Her point may be obvious, but, in the back of our minds, don’t many of us continue to believe that we can game the system and win? I know that I sometimes do. Maybe our biological impulses quite naturally and appropriately prioritize survival and it is simply natural that our minds follow suit. But in our quieter moments, when we are not fleeing saber tooth tigers or eking out a living, surely we can feel how bizarre it is that aging and death have so often come to be experienced as almost quintessentially unnatural.
I have been haunted for many years by Wittgenstein’s discussions of death, he who handled so many philosophical “problems” not by solving them, but by turning them over and seeing them in new ways until the supposedly problematic aspects melted away. The philosophical conundrum, he often argued, was rooted in the seeing or in the asking of the question and not in the matter itself. Like some spiritual masters who had come before him, Wittgenstein posited that the human being is not simply one more thing in the world, but, instead, marks a kind of limit to that world. From that point of view, death marks the dissolution of that being’s world. In other words, death is not just one more destination on the board game of life, albeit the final stop; rather, it marks the limits of the board, the arena without which the concept of life could have no sense no meaning.
Of course, we can continue to make reasonable efforts to prolong life, or to avoid accident and illness, without steeping ourselves in death denial. We are, after all, beings of biology as well as of consciousness, and both of these facets deserve great respect. But maybe any reframing of death that can help nudge us out of the habitual Western attitudes toward aging, illness, and death, at least in our quieter moments, is worth considering. To me, the lessons about death became unavoidably poignant only when I recognized that I could maintain a grudge against death only if I regarded temporal existence — time itself, I mean—as a kind of mistake, a hideous fall from grace. Many people are, like me, I suspect, capable of denying the inevitability of death for long mindless stretches of their busy, habitual lives. But as any close look in the mirror will testify, time, death’s ever present twin, will not be so easily pushed off the stage.