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How to Deal with Your Mortality
Humanity has developed a number of approaches to contend with the ultimate question. Which one is best?
by Lewis Coyne
If there’s one condition we all suffer from, it’s the burden of being human. Not only will we grow old and die, like any other living being, but we uniquely know that we must die.
From adolescence onwards, we live with the knowledge of our own mortality, with the fact that everyone we love is mortal, and that one day, at an indeterminate point in the future, we’ll all wash away from the face of the earth like sandcastles on the shore. The world will turn, and we will be gone – it is only a matter of time.
Since antiquity, philosophers have deemed this bitter self-awareness to be central to the human condition. The human condition was first written about by the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE) in his Tusculan Disputations. There he claimed that the human condition would be a happier one if only we could be sure that being dead wasn’t so bad, as then we would have less to fear while alive.
But Cicero knew, of course, that we have no such assurances. Instead, each of us has to find a way to cope with the knowledge of our mortality.
Facing up to ourselves
The two most common ways of doing so were explored in the film The Seventh Seal (1957). In it, the medieval knight Antonius Block – played by a young Max von Sydow – is so preoccupied by the death around him, as well as the inevitability of his own demise and fear of what lies beyond it, that the Grim Reaper pays him a visit to discuss the meaning of it all.
If there’s no heaven beyond this world, “Then life is a preposterous horror,” Block says. “No man can live faced with death, knowing everything’s nothingness.”
“Most people think neither of death nor of nothingness,” Death retorts.
So whereas a fear of death paralyzes Block, most of us, Death claims, try to ignore it altogether. But neither of these responses allows us to live happily while authentically facing up to our mortality. For that, Cicero says, we need to meditate on the human condition more fully and develop a different outlook on our fate.
Taking a step back
At face value, this sounds like a good solution. But what is the human condition? Here Cicero is of little help: his only clue is that awareness of our own mortality is a part of it, though not the whole.
For a fuller answer, we can turn to the great German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). In her 1958 masterpiece, The Human Condition, she describes it as the totality of the conditions of human existence.
This is a very different thing from human nature. Human nature refers to the fixed essence of human beings, whatever we take that to be (the most influential examples being the Greco-Roman idea of the rational animal and the Judeo-Christian notion of the image of God).
By contrast, the conditions of human existence are many and even subject to change. According to Arendt, “In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions.”
Arendt doesn’t offer an exhaustive list of the conditions of human existence, but she does focus on three of the most important: life, worldliness, and plurality. All three are, she says, intimately connected to two more basic conditions: natality and mortality. And these two rest, in turn, on the most fundamental condition of all: our earth-boundedness.
Cicero claimed that reflection on the human condition, in general, can help us cope with the most troubling aspect of it: our mortality. And if we adopt Arendt as our guide, that is precisely what we find.
Take the first of the three conditions Arendt focuses on, life. Because we’re alive, we have to labor, which means, in Arendt’s terminology, perpetually eking out an existence from the earth. At its most fundamental, labor involves repetitive activities such as eating, washing oneself, or cleaning the home.
Labor can often feel like futile drudgery: when we hoover the floor or do the laundry, only to find that they need cleaning again the very next day (spoken as someone who has both a dog and young children). But looked at a different way, labor can gift us with the most precious moments in any person’s life. This is because we labor not only for ourselves but for other people as well: for our children, the elderly, and the ill.
The pinnacle of caring labor is found in a mother, whose labors extend all the way to the carrying and breastfeeding of another human being. It is very hard, of course – but it can also be magical.
Something similar is true of work. In Arendt’s account, work pertains to the ‘worldliness’ of human beings. What this means is that work is the production of the artificial environment we exist in, made up of stable things: buildings, vehicles, clothes, furniture, and so on. Whenever we build or repair a durable object like these, we engage in work rather than labor.
As with labor, work can be challenging – but it is far from futile. On the contrary, creating something lasting is typically a rich and rewarding experience. When we contribute to the world, we offer something up that can be valued by other people for years to come and might, in rare instances, even outlive us.
The highest activity of the three is action, however. Arendt says that action follows from the condition of plurality, by which she means our existing alongside other people who are like us but never identical to us. In Arendt’s sense of the word, to act is to do things and say things in the public sphere that mark us as individuals.
At its grandest, action is exemplified by giving a speech to parliament or leading a huge campaign. But it could also mean something very modest, such as writing a letter to the local newspaper or speaking at a town hall meeting. In each case, one person communicates to others in the same public space, attempting to persuade them of an idea or undertaking.
Being at home
We can see, then, that through labor, work, and action, it’s possible to find meaning and joy in our lives – meaning and joy which are tied intimately to the constitution of the human condition. As Cicero said two thousand years ago, if we reflect on the human condition as a whole, it takes on a different hue: appearing not only as a burden but as a precious and fragile gift as well. This is perhaps the best way to cope with our mortality.
And there is one last possibility worth mentioning. Namely, when a work or act is so great that the memory of its creator lives on for all time. This represents, according to Arendt, a kind of immortality – the only kind to which mortals like ourselves could aspire.
In this capacity for immortality lies our greatness, she says. And in this way alone could mortals “find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves.”
Editor’s note: I think that the meditation presented here is just about the most important that a human being can undertake. I also thoroughly agree with Cicero’s assertion “that the human condition would be a happier one if only we could be sure that being dead wasn’t so bad, as then we would have less to fear while alive.”Where I (and the Jewish tradition) would differ is with the conclusion that there is no way to evidence meaning in this world and that the best we can do is to bravely generate our own.
By my lights that is not dissimilar to simply making up a happy (but fictitious) story and choosing to live by it since, well…it’s better than the alternative. Though each is not conclusive on its own, I personally believe that the preponderance of evidence from research in Near-death experiences, reincarnation accounts (especially in children), and various classical philosophical, mathematical, and theological arguments are sufficient to conclude that our lives have actual meaning and purpose.