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


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Miriam Herin
6 years ago

Beautifully done Norris and resonates with me as one of a “certain age.” I have missed you and have wanted to get to Charlotte or have you up here in the summer but life has been crazy. But we still have that plan. All best to you and your family.

Matt Smith
6 years ago

This post has really made me think this afternoon. It brought up this idea that I hadn’t wrestled with for a while:

A friend of mine, who is a writing teacher, and I were talking one day about dread similar to the dread you’re talking about. We found ourselves in a quasi-stoic place in which we talked about life being the “work” we had to do, and death a kind of deadline for the writing that was our lives. Then we discussed how much better writing is–how much more attention we give it–when we are keenly aware of a deadline. The writing must be done because there’s a point at which the deadline will end the work regardless.

How much better to accept the deadline and work toward it, rather than putting off the work that might have been done. What happens to the writing after it is completed is beyond our control, sure, but before the deadline the work is wholly ours–malleable, pliable, and full of potential.

Matt Smith
6 years ago

I’d be glad for you to use it; I think fondly of your class often, and encourage my high school students to seek out philosophy courses when they head to college, in part due to my experience with you.

Zachary White
Zachary White
6 years ago

Dr. Frederick,
This post is so profound in so many ways. I’ve already read it multiple times and each time I read it, I’m seeing and feeling different things. I so appreciated how you talk about how certain philosophies speak to you at different times of the day (e.g., how the Stoics and Epicureans make so much sense–during the day, but at night, when we turn inward (and often against) ourselves, it doesn’t quite suffice. And I love the “three goods” you leave us with to think and feel about. And it’s so appropriate to end with “to be continued.” Thank you!

6 years ago

Norris, what a great have such a gentle way of presenting deep subjects for us all to think about. I especially can relate to Unamuno’s thoughts. This has stayed in my mind long after reading it yesterday. I’m looking forward to your next post/blog!

John Clark
John Clark
6 years ago

Response to Norris-Death Many Questions

‘Death: Many Questions’ by Norris is, as usual, a thoughtful essay. I especially like the part about talking with his friend in the DC area about the deaths of close friends: “Words failed us both as we tried to explain, but now we share the experience.”

It’s a good observation on any serious life topic or experience—good friends share. The sharing is in itself a true and special gift. Something to treasure. It is also good to be reminded by the philosopher of the essential core of the discipline, as Norris puts it, “…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.”

Norris suggests this challenge “…to conceive of a time after we are dead.” I would suggest when we are young, we don’t necessarily think about that unless we are in Dr. Frederick’s class. I do not recall thinking much about it, certainly not in any serious way in my youth and early adulthood. When we reach midlife and later, the notion of not only dying but also of our own death, certainly becomes a relevant topic. As Norris noted, we begin to experience the death of a friend or relative and the question stares us in the face.

I have not, for some reason, been overly concerned about what happens after I die. Naturally, I have thought about it. A friend might raise the question or I may read something that comments on the issue, yet I have not felt the need to ponder ‘life after death’ in any serious way. I have simply believed (yes—who really knows) that when we die, we are dead, ashes, dissipated atoms, flying neutrinos. Whatever. Many others, I know, believe there is something else. Another chapter of some sort.

The statement in Norris’ essay that offers itself up for some discussion, I believe, is one in which he describes the take of ancient Greek philosophers or schools of thought of that time. His opening sentence is the one that caught my attention: “Ancient Greek philosophers offer ways for us to distance ourselves and think rationally about death in order to live a better life.”

My question might be why will doing this lead to a ‘better life’? Well, one might say this is what philosophers do in the practice of their discipline. Step back from the issue or the problem and think rationally about it. It would be foolish for me to argue one should never do that; however, I do want to offer the idea that possibly a deeper understanding of death, especially the death of a loved one or friend, may come from allowing oneself to ease deeply into grief about the loss.

In other words, for lack of a more precise term, let one’s heart take over first. Be kind to oneself and allow the feelings to flow. Do not step away from the experience but step into it. Embrace it in all its mystery and totality. And this is what Norris gets at in shining the light on Unamuno’s view in his The Tragic Sense of Life. The grieving for the death of another and the grieving for oneself is not separate. It is the same thing, for in diving deeply into grief, a natural state of being human, we arrive through the experience at a profound level of empathy and compassion—all one dense ball of wax—and through that we find, for lack of a better term, grace.

Thanks, Norris.

Mark Jenkins
Mark Jenkins
6 years ago

Having endured a funeral of a loved one this week, this post brings lots of thoughts, which I’ll try to condense to two points:

1. I often tell my students that facing the possibility of nihilism in an academic setting is much better than getting smacked upside the head of it unawares. Death of a loved one is one of those things that can cause such an unmooring. Facing the idea that regardless of all the hard work we put it in, that we will ultimately all be fodder for worms one day is often a hard concept until one actually has to face it.
2. Our uncertainty about death is perhaps one of the prime anxieties of human consciousness. Indeed, I feel like most major religions are largely constructed on telling us a story about this journey that gives us a comfort and ritual to handle it, and that death ceremonies are more for the living than the dead. We commemorate because we do not want to be forgotten. We want our lives to mean something. Philosophy, at some level, helps us deal with our impermanence that death suggests.

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