We erroneously have believed in the past that the knowledge of our inevitable death was an exclusive one for we humans. Now we do know that elephants for sure — and probably other high mammals (especially the great apes) — do know about being alive, have a sense of selfhood, and the knowledge of their coming inevitable death. In fact, elephants have funerals and collective mourning around the dead loved one. So much for assigning ourselves uniqueness.
For us, the knowledge is felt as a background noise constantly present that weighs on our lives. It is expressed in the form of a thanato-phobia (Greek for “the anxiety of death”) present in us all.
For some, faith helps us to imagine continuity as conscious human beings in the afterlife with elaborate auxiliary beliefs that we will be judged and punished in various imagined ways. But the real background of the feeling and anxiety that death means no more for life as we know, it still remains.
Some religions believe we will re-incarnate to a different living creature, in different times, repeating that process forever! But just the same as we enter the immensity and the endlessness, and we will no longer exist as conscious entities as in this life, still the anxiety remains as a background uneasiness. Others, and that’s the majority, strongly believe that there is a place for us along with our consciousness, awareness, and sense of self-hood together in a new place unimaginable in its difference to that of the current one. In fact, many of our fellow humans prepare all their lives, as it were, for that new development; worshiping the deity, pleading for forgiveness, for sins real or even imagined; while continuously still anxious about the final event. Paradoxically, agnostics or even atheists among us have settled their anxiety to a lower degree by expecting themselves to be simply recycled and turned into a breeze, a flower, or simply contributing to the constituent of a new creature with the organic material of our own body. The fact is that the actual death lasts only a few seconds and then we will be “on the other side” — whatever that will look like.
Overall though, a rational handling of our inevitable end of our lives is to create a system of what I call “life-manship” — while still alive actively contributing and being contributed, pondering, creating, traveling, in wonder and above all, loving our children, our friends, our neighbors, and especially our mates. Furthermore, we should perceive our life as one of once-in-a-life-time adventure! An understanding that Life simply IS, upon which — to the extent possible — we can write on our own adventures and wonderful moments, avoiding abusing it with excesses and unnecessary “grouchiness” and rancor while perceiving our death as a move to unfathomable mystery that is not for us to ever discern, mindful of the futility of the unnecessary uneasiness, even often frantic anxiety for the inevitable event. Instead, we should be grateful for the sunrises and sunsets we have witnessed and the intimate moments we have shared.
As a dying loved friend, lamenting, summed it up as he was dying, “All my life, I was fearful and preparing for death, ending up spending my days meaninglessly. A life mis-spent.”
Others, equally misguided, behave as if their life is forever, collecting “wealth” (clutching the rocks forever, as it were), being pugnacious, striving for power, for influence, and an unneeded rapacity. Another example of a life mis-spent.