Death is something we encounter everyday. When people die in car accidents or catastrophic natural disasters. We tend to avoid thinking about death, despite its ubiquity in this world of mortal creatures. There are better things to think about everyday, right?
I used to think that way. Being Christian has made death a less scary prospect when you believe that it isn’t the end. But recently there has been a spate of passings away that seem to keep bringing it into focus. The promising future of a twenty-year-old Singaporean med student studying in Cambridge is abruptly interrupted by an errant car. Mrs. Lee Kuan Yew (a.k.a. Kwa Geok Choo) passes away after a long life and a long marriage to the most important politician in Singapore history. My friend messages me that his grandmother has also just passed away.
Why do humans fear death, or for those who claim they don’t, still behave to avoid it? What exactly is it about death that humans fear? Is it the possibility that there is no afterlife, that death is the end of our existence? Or perhaps it is the fear of the sensation of dying itself, that the pain and suffering one experiences while moving from life into death will be excruciating.
My fear of death used to be preoccupied with the first possibility, when my belief of heaven and hell was not very firm. But as I become more certain of the existence of heaven (a certainty based on faith, I cannot actually claim empirical evidence to the fact), my fear moved on to the second type. Then I got into my bicycle accident, and I can say there are probably many more excruciating pains one will feel before the one that ends our lives, which may or may not be as bad as the ones we will experience. Personally, I don’t know how dying could compare to the horrible feeling of tooth extraction, or the uncontrollable itch of an inexplicable rash.
So apparently I have no more reason to fear death? Yet there must be a reason why after a few minutes in a moving car I feel uneasy and put on my seatbelt.
But recently, as I consider the meaning of my life, what God wants me to do, and what it would take for me to do His will, I realised the reason why I am still so scared of dying: My death now would mean the ending of a life of which I am still unsatisfied with. In other words, it would be easy for me to welcome death once I have done all I have wanted to do, or was supposed to do, while alive.
The comedy Eli Stone features a lawyer who suffers from a possibly fatal brain aneurysm that causes episodes of hallucinations. One of these episodes occurs while he is in court, which called into question his ability to practise law. When questioned how effective he would be as a lawyer when he could drop dead at any moment, he responds,”But until that happens, I know each case could be my last, and I try that much harder. I take cases that are much more important to me, and I think I’m a better lawyer for it.”
The Stoics believed that contemplation of death could lead to a better quality of life. When we acknowledge the mortality of the people we love, that they could be gone from this earth at any moment, wouldn’t we treasure every minute with them more?
Can life be meaningful without death?
When something is in abundance, we tend to take it for granted. But like bluefin tuna and crude oil, when something is scarce we suddenly feel the need to utilise well what is remaining, to not let it go to waste. I guess that’s what death does to life.
It gives life its value.