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Death, taxes and positivity

| Monday, April 9, 2018

As April rolls around, I’ve been thinking about the two things which that old joke guarantees in life: death and taxes. Besides inevitability, they’ve got something else in common — I fear both death and taxes.

Even so, it’s important to remember death (and your taxes, due April 15th — don’t forget). As a culture, we’ve adopted oddly paradoxical behavior regarding death. On one hand, we all accept death as natural. In our increasingly secular and scientific world, death is nothing more than the decaying of cells and organ systems. We know we cannot avoid it in the end, yet we are obsessed with ignoring it as best we can, filling our lives with endless distractions and foolishly attempting to control our fates.

This is not a new problem. For centuries, philosophers, artists, poets and men from all walks of life have struggled with mortality. But our modern age has ushered in a stronger avoidance of death, or at least of thinking about it.  

Modern medicine has, thankfully, allowed us to avoid the great pain and suffering that used to accompany childbirth, disease, surgery etc. Modern food production keeps us at a comfortable and detached distance from the death required for our food. Entertainment devices and diversions constantly available at our fingertips allows us to live blissfully preoccupied lives. Our parents and grandparents get to enter retirement communities now at an earlier and earlier age, pushed out of our homes as to not be burdensome, but often just to die alone. Even our wars are fought in far away places. Death is just less present in our lives.

Few of these things seem intrinsically evil, yet our avoidance of death is quite problematic. As I see it our fear of death is rooted in two things — our reason and our pride — and only a proper view of the end of life will bring us peace. Though it may seem odd, we need to have a more positive view of death.

Animals have no reason, and also no fear of death, just instinctual avoidance. As rational creatures, we fear death because we are conscious of it. We are prospective and creative creatures, we plan for the future and embrace the relationships, joys and dreams that extend beyond the present moment. Death is the end of our story as we know it, an interruption in a plot we wish could go on just a little longer.  As animals we must die, yet something about death will always be unnatural because our lives — and therefore our deaths — have meaning.

Our fear of death is also tied to our pride. Try as we might, death remains the one insurmountable reminder of our lack of control. We are not our own creators, we are not gods. We seek to deny these truths and we therefore avoid those things which remind of our mortality. I hate being the bearer of bad news, but we will not always be spry 20-somethings at peak physical attractiveness with minds as sharp as diamonds.

Hopefully the lives ahead of us will be long and full, but in the end, we have no control of these things. Death might come knocking soon, as it has for many of our loved ones and friends.

Though it is easy to fall into a pit of despair or to lapse into fear-driven hedonism because our world might end tomorrow, reflections on death should lead us to love more fully and embrace life in its fullness.

So how are we called to live more “death-positive” lives?

On this topic Orthodox writer Constantine Malandrakis says, “Death should be a constant dimension and quality of any Christian’s life, not just something that befalls him at the last moment. Awareness of death gives to life immediacy and depth, and makes life so intense that its totality is summed up in the present moment. As Christ claimed the victory over death by death, so a Christian defeats death and the fear of death with all of its tragic consequences through a mindfulness of death during his life.”

Remember the preciousness of life. Remember that death and disease and getting old happen to everyone.

It is important that we each see ourselves as part of a larger community that is made up of people of all ages — freshmen and seniors, graduates students and professors emeritus, newborn babies and elderly nuns. Life is one messy, beautiful, complicated circle and we are called to live it as best we can.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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