What can we affirm about our finiteness, regardless of whether we accept a religious perspective on life?
One view death is that it demands the realization that life makes sense only when shared with others. It compels us to yoke our ego and observe our independence on others. Not only to parents and families, but to eons of faceless, ordinary people who have made it possible for us to live. Whether biologically, physically, culturally, or spiritually.
We can consider our existence as part of the life and history of a huge family. And we can realize that it doesn’t matter that our life will be unknown to those who come after us. Nor does it matter if our life is unimposing to our contemporaries.
This stance faces what we have in common. We know we are all incomplete and fragile and experience neediness. That has been the basis of community throughout history.
We know deep within us the anxiety and struggle each person has to go through in coming to terms with death and affirming life.
Many people shy away from this struggle and seek to resolve the tension between life and death by denying death. Or by victimizing others. Or resorting to some other illusion of power over death.
But the capacity for real empathy and connection is in every person. This capacity confirms an enormous potential for humanity for community and social conscience.
We are not talking about duty here. That we have an obligation to do something with our time on earth. This is the discovery of our real identities. A discovery that makes death bearable and valuable.
Death is the strongest sign of human vulnerability. But it is also a powerful reminder of our capacity to enhance life and make it more fruitful.
Not a person, who has ever lived, however wealthy or impoverished, could have survived for more than a day without being cared for by another person.
Not a person who has ever lived, however briefly, has not had a significant impact on others lives, for better or worse.
Precisely because all people are mortal and all people are needy, all people have the ability to contribute to the lives of others. Even the infant who dies at birth has already had a profound effect upon her parent’s lives.
The extent of our interdependence is glimpsed in our society when we see the enormous capacity for destruction of a single hotel arsonist or airplane activist. Less directly, the life expectancy of everyone in the world is affected by decisions on arms, industrial pollution, and nuclear power.
No one leaves this world without increasing or diminishing the vast web of human experience and promise. Norman Cousins summarizes this point well:
“No man need fear death; he need only fear that he may die without having known his greatest power – the power of his free will to give his life to others. If something comes to life in others because of you, then you have made an approach to immortality.”