Death isn’t getting the attention it deserves, and I think we need to think about it, talk about, ponder it, get close to it, and prepare for it. On busy streets, in quiet houses, and in dull offices people resist any thoughts on death in their yearning to be free. These people are the possibly subconscious followers of a belief that those who are free don’t spend time thinking of death. But are these people, maybe you and maybe me, correct in their belief that to find freedom one must avoid thoughts of death?
The premise for this belief hinges on the answer to the question of what makes somebody free, and the implied answer here is faulty. This belief assumes that innocence is what makes somebody free, for by avoiding thoughts of death one remains innocent to its existence, and thus free. However, I think that innocence only creates a perception of freedom, and that real freedom lies in understanding and preparation for important life moments, including the moment of death. Later I will consider the objection that death isn’t even important, and therefore not worth preparation and understanding in the search for freedom. The truth though, exists between the argument and the objection: even though death is not important, the way in which its mystique infiltrates our lives is important and therefore if anyone is to be free, it still warrants understanding.
The premise of this commonly held belief is that through innocence by not thinking about death, one is free. But in truth, innocence does not sustain being free. It is easily understood, though, that innocence makes us feel free. The idea of freedom rooted in innocence can be related to youth. Typically childhood evokes memories of freedom because as children we were innocent and do not spend time meditating or understanding the truths of life or the truths of death. However, is freedom through innocence true freedom or simply perceived freedom? In fact it is a perception. In using the word perception I do not intend to take anything away from the feeling of freedom that childhood or innocence creates, for the feeling is real. But although innocence allows one to feel immensely free, that freedom is shallow, as it does not give one the ability to transcend the challenges of life, it merely gives them the ability to avoid them. And then, when difficulties enter a person’s life, the feeling of freedom becomes evidently shallow. For example, in the freedom of childhood, catastrophic moments of tears and anger erupt from minor incidents like spilt juice. Children, or innocent people in general, really are not free in depth if they cannot navigate through life without catastrophes at difficult moments. Tolstoy’s novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, stands in agreement as it is suggested that artificial life, an avoidance of the truth, is a deception that leaves one confused at the time of death.
The alternate choice from freedom through innocence is instead freedom through an authentic life of understanding. Understanding forges true freedom because it allows one to approach the challenges of life, such as death, with peace and preparedness. Looking at our daily lives, it is no shock that understanding and preparation are essential to freedom. Prior to every significant moment in our lives we prepare and think and meditate in order to allow ourselves to freely navigate that given moment. Before a test, we study. Before a wedding, we ponder. Before a performance, we practice. It is these moments of preparation and efforts towards understanding that give us freedom and the ability to navigate when we arrive at weighty points of life. Why then would we utterly avoid preparation and pondering for probably the most important moment of our lives? To be free, we must understand, and to understand, we must think. Think of not only life, but of death in the same manner.
But still, you may question whether or not death really is the most important moment of our lives, as is central to the prior argument. And that is a good question. The argument I put forth states that because death is important, and freedom comes through understanding of and preparation for important events, then we must prepare for and understand death. But is death really an important moment of our lives? And could it even be important enough to make preparation worthwhile?
Firstly, no. Death is not the most important moment in our lives. Importance in a moment can be described in different ways, and each will be applied to death in order to understand its relevant importance. One account is that importance in a moment is that moment’s ability to affect the future of one’s life. Death, however, has no affect on the future of a person’s life, because from the moment of death on, there is no future to be affected. Therefore, death is not important because it does not affect the future of one’s life. Another account is that importance in a moment is that moment’s interaction with the senses and feelings of a person. Does a moment hurt, pleasure, overwhelm, or relax the person that it affects? In this case the moment of death, cannot hurt, pleasure, overwhelm or relax a person—it cannot interact with the feelings and senses of a person that no longer exists. Maybe right before death, but not at death. Therefore, in this account, death is also unimportant. If these examples aren’t convincing that death is not important, think of your own application for importance, and apply it to death. This distinction, that death cannot be important, differentiates it from the Olympics, a wedding, or an exam because the latter three will have an affect on a person’s future, and will interact with the feelings and senses of a person, thus making them important, and worth preparing for.
And even if we did accept that death is important, as the original argument states, is it important enough to prepare for while considering the downsides that preparation could have? To determine the worth of preparation, we must compare the difference between the benefits that preparation could make with the downsides that it could cause. Preparing for death could make the whole process more peaceful, whereas lack of preparation could make the process terrifying. The downsides that preparation could cause are that in seeking to understand death one could in fact hinder his or her life. In Jeffrie Murphy’s essay, Rationality and the Fear of Death, he wisely offers the idea that we can care so much about life and death that we lose that which makes life worth living. For example in my fear of death and in my pressure to live life well, I could lose the very things that make life worth it, like spontaneity and presence. Connecting this idea to the comparison of pros and cons of the preparation of death illuminates that in the search to understand death one can easily lose the beauty of life, therefore making it not worth an understanding of death because the risk is too large. Put more simply, one could go crazy in their search to understand death, they could over think it. The suspicion that death may not be so important as the first argument suggests is worthy, but the question is whether it carries enough weight to negate the argument.
Both the argument and the objection give valid points about whether or not one must think about death in order to be free. The argument suggests that understanding and preparing for death is monumental in being free for the reason that death is important, and in life we know that understanding of and preparation for important moments is necessary to be free. This is correct in the idea that understanding and preparation are needed for true freedom, however a clarification needs to be made with the word preparation. Preparation is often understood as for the benefit of a singular event. For example, to practice running is beneficial to the marathon, and to study math is beneficial to the math test. However, in the case of death, and maybe other cases as well, I think preparation has a different nature. Your preparation isn’t to make death better, it is actually to make life better. This distinction negates any question of whether or not death is important, because the focus of understanding death is life, not death.
Moreover, the objection to the initial argument is correct in its statement that death isn’t necessarily important. But it falls short in missing that the fear and uncertainty of death that pervade a human’s life are very important. Death’s effect on life is immense in its capacity to control the course life takes. Also, the objection misses that death’s importance is actually irrelevant in the matter because preparation serves life not death. And lastly, the objection states that the risk of preparation is too large, but I have never seen enlightenment or understanding cause any problems in the long run.
Drawing from the strengths of both the argument and the objection I suggest that death is not important but that preparation is still necessary because in order to have freedom during life (which is important), we must prepare for death. I do not state that by preparing for death, death will be better. It is really that if we prepare for death, life will better. This however rubs against the grain of our nature to consider that preparing for something isn’t to make that moment better, but instead to make us better, before and after the moment. But truly, that is the value of preparation, and therefore, in order to find freedom we must understand death not for the importance of death but for the way in which if affects our important lives. Death isn’t getting the attention it deserves, and I think we need to think about it, talk about, ponder it, get close to it, and prepare for it.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Bantam Classics). New York: Bantam Classics, 1981. Print.
Murphy, Jeffrie G., Rationality and the Fear of Death, Monist, 59:2 (1976:Apr.)
Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1969. Print.