Category Archives: Stoicism

Death: Many Questions

By Dr. Norris Frederick

There’s been way too much death in my world in the last year:  four nearby neighbors, three cousins, two close high school friends, and one Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that had an enormous influence on me.  These deaths have affected me in ways I don’t yet fully understand.  They may have something to do with the writer’s block that has locked my mind and typing fingers.

Objectively, ten deaths is nothing in this world.  Eighteen people died just yesterday in the terrorist attack in London, just as they were going about their normal day, going to work, shopping.  And that pales beside the years-long carnage in Syria.  When I hear about those deaths, I suffer briefly with them, but typically go on to the next thing and their deaths fade from my being until some event brings it back.  But for most all of us, when our friends and family die, we feel the loss in a deep, existential sense that rocks our world.

I talk every week with a very good friend who lives near D.C.  He’s listened sympathetically to me talk about the deaths of my friends, but it wasn’t until recently when he had a close friend die that he really felt what I was experiencing.  Words failed us both as we tried to explain, but now we share the experience.

Aristotle writes that one of the essential goods of a person’s life is friendship.  Who would want to live a life without friends?  We realize that by paying attention to the feeling when a friend moves away and most vividly when a friend dies.

One conception of philosophy is that it deals with far-out, abstract ideas that have no connection with reality.  Guys and gals sit around, drinking or perhaps smoking dope, saying, “Hey, man, what if ….?”  But in fact the best philosophy begins with wonder or mysteries or problems or deep experiences, and tries to think about those problems and experiences in ways that connect back fruitfully to our lives, so that we both understand better and live better.

The full experience of death raises so many questions:  Do we just live and die, fini, that’s all, folks? Or does something transcend?   Does some part of us survive in another world, or perhaps are we re-born into this world?  Does death take away the meaning of life?  Is death the ultimate proof that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing?”

There are some strange asymmetries in the way we think about death.   Adults have no trouble conceiving of a time before we are born (after all I know I was not alive during the Civil War), but it’s difficult for us to conceive of a time after we are dead – how can the world go on without me?

Ancient Greek philosophies offer ways for us to distance ourselves and think rationally about death in order to live a better life now.  The Epicureans, who believe that everything is composed of atoms, say that when I die the atoms that are “me” disperse, so “I” no longer am.  Thus, “When I am, death is not; when death is I am not.”  The key is to enjoy life while we are alive, and to realize that we should not fear death, for when it occurs we will have no pain.  The Stoics argue that when we die, we return to the Logos, the eternal ongoing impersonal, rational process of the world.  “Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be:  short or long.  What is yours is to play the assigned part well.”

The reasoning of the Epicureans and Stoics each make sense, at least to a certain extent.  They capture what I often think during the daytime.  They don’t capture what I feel and think when I wake up in the middle of the night.  For that I need to turn to the 20th-century existentialist Miguel de Unamuno who writes in The Tragic Sense of Life, in an attempt to capture the way we really feel about death, despite listening to good reasons:

I do not want to die – no; I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  I want this “I” to live – this poor “I” that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now, and therefore the problem of the duration of my soul, of my own soul, tortures me.

That’s it.  Unamuno nailed it that feeling of existential terror that we all feel at some points of our lives.   I do grieve, truly grieve for the deaths of those I know, and for their families and friends.  But I also grieve for me.  I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  That wild, deep feeling he describes is perhaps more “me” than reason.

So, you ask, what good is there for my life in recognizing this existential terror?  There are three goods that come to mind.  First, you now have admitted to consciousness knowledge you did not have before. Second, you move from being alone to being companioned; we are all in the same boat regarding death. Finally, realizing that there are no easy answers to the questions of death, you can do the best thing someone can do for a bereaved friend:  just sit with them, just be with them. Just sit with yourself, just observe, just be,

To be continued


Photo credit:  Norris Frederick