What is interesting is that even many secular philosophers believe that this is the best place to ask the hard questions of life – in the face of death.
This is where honesty is found, where reality reigns, where the expectations and influences of others are diminished and the human soul can gain a deep perspective on the real issues of its own existence.
Last year, late at night, I came across a show on television called “Philosophy – Here and Now.” The intent was to make philosophy relevant. Citing both Kierkegaard and Heidegger, the narrator made the point that only in the face of death can you find meaning in life.
In fact, Kierkegaard has often been quoted as saying that the more anguish you have in life, the more human you become. Heidegger talks about “the inauthentic life” which denies death, or, at least, avoids it or treats it as an “event” or even a “spectacle” to be endured but not to be embraced. This fear of death is at the heart of the inauthentic life.
In contrast, Heidegger claims, the basis of the authentic life is to accept death.
“No one can die for me,” he would say. “I must die myself.” Pain, suffering and death are intensely personal.
These statements may be a way of confronting our finitude but they also create great anguish. This is the source of the modern “angst” (anxiety) about life (and, more specifically, the non-continuance of life, that is, death).
“Death makes impossible all the possibilities of your life,” he would claim. When we face our anguish and come to terms with it, we find truth and out of truth we can construct meaning – at least for ourselves.
These philosophers recognize that the concept of “free will” is quite misleading. Even Freud did not believe that we have “free will” but, rather, that we are all deeply affected and influenced by the thinking, the beliefs and the values of those around us (as well as deep forces within our own psyche).
Since death is so personal, so intimate, so final, you are forced (if only for a moment) to disregard the opinions of others and to focus on yourself. What do you really want? What do you really believe? In the face of death, what are you willing to die for (or live for)? What truth, what meaning can you construct for yourself in the face of this intimate and ultimate finitude?
Rather than living the life of the “herd” under the tyranny of others, often mediated through mass media with the purpose of creating a consumer lifestyle meant to fulfill (or, better said, to distract you from) your need for meaning, purpose and significance, death invites you to break the power of public opinion in your life and chart your own course, make your own way, find your own answers.
This is the existential search for meaning in a dangerous world.
This is, ultimately, a step in the direction of “free will”. At least you can attempt to truly be the god of your own life if you are willing to throw off the shackles of fear and conformity.
Death is nothingness (they say). The way to defy “nothingness” is to create something – find meaning, develop purpose, discover significance.
Declare what you believe.
Make commitments and back them up with action.
Find your individual voice, your own words, your personal contribution.
Find yourself. Discover your uniqueness.
Appreciate life, your life, by facing death.
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Footnotes and references included in the original manuscript.