What's It All About?

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October 30th 2019
Published: October 30th 2019
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What's it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give
Or are we meant to be kind…?

(Burt Bacharach)

What’s life all about? We are born and we die. If there is an afterlife – a reward or punishment for our earthly deeds – then life would be comprehensible and meaningful, a link in some sort of cosmic or spiritual chain. But I don’t believe in life after death. We are physical matter, chemicals, and the idea of an immortal soul living on after death is a human invention – mere wish fulfilment. No, all we have are the years between birth and death. How best to use them is the only question.

This rather morbid essay was triggered by an article I read in The Guardian: 'Doubting death: how our brains shield us from mortal truth'. According to the article: "our brains do their best to keep us from dwelling on our inevitable demise. A study found that the brain shields us from existential fear by categorizing death as an unfortunate event that only befalls other people."

This seems true enough. When I was young, I never contemplated death - my own or anyone else's. As I get older, I occasionally think about the fact that one day I'll be dead, a subterranean hotel for worms, but most of my energy goes into the business of living. Just as well I seldom think about dying. Imagine a world full of people constantly agonizing about their impending deaths; it would be unbearable. As the article says: The brain does not accept that death is related to us … We have this primal mechanism that means when the brain gets information that links self to death, something tells us it’s not reliable, so we shouldn’t believe it. Being shielded from thoughts of our future death could be crucial for us to live in the present. The protection may switch on in early life as our minds develop and we realize death comes to us all.”

Steve Jobs, in his commencement address to Stanford University graduates in 2005, spoke memorably about death:

"When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me.

And since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?'

And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Well, I partly agree with Mr Jobs, but he glosses over the essential tragedy of human life – we are given stupendous brains, allowing us to enjoy life, reach the Moon, change the face of our planet and philosophize about the human condition but, in the end, we are the same as cockroaches or cabbages, doomed to oblivion. It is all very well to say "Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new." This is scientific and logical, perhaps good for the species, but it ignores what individual human beings must go through before they die. Unless you are a devout believer in an afterlife, or unless you are in pain, death is surely terrible. It means you will never see your loved ones again, never watch another sunset, never listen to another Skip James track, never again burst into laughter.

As Roy Batty, the replicant, says at the end of 'Bladerunner': “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” Roy is in love with life; he wants to extend his life, not die as programmed. He is Everyman.

The poet W. B. Yeats wrote of “the discourtesy of death”, but that is putting it mildly. To have everything snatched away from you – all the things you are, all the things you love – at the moment of death is tragic. There is something infinitely sad about the death of a human being – all that talent, all that wisdom, all that kindness snuffed out. I prefer what Dylan Thomas wrote: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

A counter-argument is the one that Jonathan Swift advances in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Gulliver visits the land of the Struldbrugs, beings who age but do not die. Without eternal youth, they are pitiful creatures – sick and dejected. Perhaps Swift and Jobs are right; perhaps it is best that we humans die when we do. Prolonging life indefinitely might be a recipe for boredom and, at worst, long-drawn-out pain.

There is nothing we can do to stop death, which brings me back to the big question: how then are we supposed to live our lives? My simple answer to that is 1) not to hurt other people 2) to help other people 3) to seize the day and enjoy youself (while abiding by 1 and 2).

I’ve always liked the lines from Crosby Stills and Nash: “Rejoice rejoice, we have no choice / But to carry on.” In the face of death’s inevitability we might as well make the best of whatever life has given us and not dwell on death. As the Guardian article says, it seems we are hard wired to do this.

In his ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, Hamlet gives a reason for choosing life over death:

"… the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we
Than fly to others that we know not of?"

Bad though life may be, we carry on living because the alternative – death – may be worse. Who knows what happens to us after death? No one has ever returned to tell the tale, so it may be best to settle for whatever life has given us. The lesser of evils, as it were.

Hope springs eternal. This is the message of ‘Waiting For Godot’. The two tramps embody the human instinct for survival, the belief that something or somebody may turn up and transform our lives. Alternatively, Philip Larkin in ‘Next Please’ thinks such optimism is misplaced:

"Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break."

Or, as Macbeth puts it:

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing."

I sometimes joke about coming back to life as a mango or durian tree. When my body is laid to rest in the soil of Vietnam, it will decompose and become nourishment for plants and trees. In a sense, then, I will live on after death. Not much consolation in this, though, because I will no longer have my cognitive faculties.

And then there is the immortality granted by fame. Some people transcend death through their great works. Shakespeare, Homer, Beethoven, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. But, being dead, they do not know they are legends. Better, however, to have given something valuable to the human race than to have lived a totally selfish or useless life. Macbeth is wrong to say that a human life signifies nothing, because one person can have a huge impact on the world.

Life after death matters in the sense that we should strive to bequeath something good to the world we are leaving. Therefore we should make the most of the time granted to us on Planet Earth. Let me reiterate my philosophy of life. We ordinary folk should live life to the full without hurting other people and should strive to do good. If we are blessed with uncommon talents, we should use those talents for the benefit of humanity. Death is mysterious and inevitable, and it is best we do not think about it. We should concentrate on living. Those great philosophers, Crosby Stills and Nash, are surely right: “Rejoice rejoice, we have no choice / But to carry on.


1st December 2019

Death makes life come full circle. My beloved teacher used to say: “I’m not afraid of death, what I dread most is to live and be forgotten by people around me”. Another brilliant essay, Kevin!

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