In trying to come to terms with our mortality, we might first consider that our species could not, as it stands, survive without death.
Humanity seems used to taking its obvious blessings for granted. Perhaps it takes its curses for granted too, missing the paradox of how much death contributes to life.
For one thing, death is an important mechanism enhancing the adaptive flexibility of the species through the sacrifice of individuals. It makes certain that the bearers of new genetic patterns will succeed the bearers of older ones. Death, in this light, is important for supporting genetic change.
Death also stamps our being as limited, fragile, and vulnerable. The sense of limits that death conveys to us is what gives us a sense of proportion and sense of priorities. Unlimited life might render us callous and indifferent. About time and people. Seasons would come and go unremarked upon. The pull to take people and life in general for granted would be strong.
Death is an appropriate part of human existence that gives it form and meaning. To realize that death terminates our lives is also to realize that death frames our lives. In having only limited number of years and days, we are forced to establish priorities about what is important to us.
Thus death can emphasize the importance to a person’s life of honesty and a release from egoism. An appreciation of the value of our limits.
Socrates thought that the key difference between humans and other animals is the awareness of mortality because that awareness is an inducement to live an examined life.
It is true that legions of people, with powerful encouragement from a consumer-oriented society, resist the goad to set priorities and to examine life.
Nevertheless, making a firm determination about what is important and valuable to oneself is probably an essential ingredient of an appreciation of life.
One needs death as a fact of life to have pleasure as well as significance in life.
As the novelist John Fowels wrote: “The function of death is to put tension into life. The more we increase the length and the security of individual existence then the more tension we remove from it.
All our pleasurable experiences contain a faint yet terrible element of the condemned man’s last breakfast. An echo of the intensity of feeling of the poet who knows he is going to die, of the young soldier going doomed into battle.”
Similarly the philosopher Yaeger Hudson believes an everlasting life could not have any meaning or significance for it would consist of an infinite number of meaningless moments or years or millennia. He argues that what is most terrifying about Sisyphus’s fate is that he can’t die – his absurd ordeal must go on forever.
In Greek mythology Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra. He was punished by being made to roll a boulder up a steep slope again and again for eternity. “It is only finite life; life lived within a definitely limited space of years that can have significance,” say Yaeger.
For in the life of a finite person there is urgency to live well. There are moments that are crucial. There are reasons to act decisively and seize opportunities which will never return. In a life of limited duration every moment is precious, and there is real point in attempting to live it to the full.
One can find a good illustration of how realizing life’s limits leads to a deeper appreciation of life in the remarkable testimony of many people with terminal illness.
A man who toured campuses in the last year of his life while his cancer was in remission. Relating how special each sunrise was to him, and how much the quality of his life depended on his quiet appreciation of it. He pleaded with the members of his audience to remember that they were all terminal. To avoid the entrapment of the rat race that fosters the denial of death and the illusion of unlimited time.
It’s a story that’s told time and time again.
“I notice the sky is blue now. I can see God has given us the flowers and the rivers and the sunshine. And I realize that life is wondrous in its natural and human dimensions.”
It’s never too late.