The Meaning of Death

The meaning of life is transient; it changes all the time. Some days I get out of bed because I want to finish reading a book I just picked up, sometimes I have places to be, and others I’m just hungry. There’s plenty of meaning to be found in life.

However, I can’t find the meaning of death, and I think that’s what scares me.

In trying to articulate to myself the nature of my fear of mortality (especially when trying to fall asleep in the face of it late at night) I tend to fall short in my analogies. “Imagine,” I say to myself, “that one day your car is just going to turn up missing, and you have no way of knowing when in advance. You’ll just go to sleep one night, and the next morning it will be gone, regardless of your plans or needs for the day in question. You’re afraid of this, because you’re worried you’ll be suddenly incapacitated, and you wonder why you’ve built a life dependent on such a fleeting vulnerable luxury.”

But that doesn’t really cut it. The car is a material possession that I chose to acquire, and its potential for meaningless disappearance is a manageable risk. If it’s gone without warning, I may have to bum rides for a little while or move someplace with a decent public transit system, but I’ll adapt to my new pedestrian lifestyle and move on. I may even get another car in the future.

I can’t exactly get another life when I die. I feel it would devalue my death and my present life if I did. So I worry that death in some way invalidates my life and strips it of its meaning. If I live for myself and acquire fame and fortune, all that is lost when I die. If I live for others, stockpiling love and devotion like so many treasures, then all that is lost when I and they die. How can I find meaning in that?

A friend of mine once told me that the meaning of life in the face of death (and hence, the meaning of death) is bound intrinsically to its temporality. The very fact that it is impermanent gives it its incalculable worth. That takes care of the meaning of life, but once again, meaningfulness can be found for life in many different ways. I’m looking for the meaning of death, and it isn’t comforting to my fear to know that death validates life.

It’s very disconcerting to think that suddenly, without warning, my life will cease to be meaningful and valuable as anything more than someone’s memory.

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