What is the meaning of death?
The finite quality of life is disturbing for many people, not only because they are forced to consider their own lives as temporary, but because there is a commonly held notion that, since it will all end anyway, a person’s efforts in life are futile. There was once a humorous poster of a woman standing over her husband’s grave. On the headstone, there was a list of vices that the man successfully overcame, along with the respective year he gave each one up. At the bottom of the list was the final inscription, “DIED ANYWAY”. The use of the word “anyway” reveals a certain implication that, although one may succeed in this or that endeavor, for a certain amount of time, one will not succeed in overcoming the ultimate hampering of man’s striving–death–and that, by extension, death represent a type of immanent failure which then strips all events before it of meaning. This notion seems to pit life against death. Interestingly, I myself have also come across an attitude, when working with people who have very self-destructive habits such as drug addiction or promiscuity, of, “why should I give this up if I am going to die anyway?”
This concept of death is opposed by Logotherapy. Frankl dubbed it “neurotic fatalism”, whereby one gives up one’s responsibility for one’s life by claiming helplessness in the face of inevitable factors, such as death. In fact, says Frankl, the fact that life is temporary is precisely what bestows meaning upon it. With a deadline as it were (pun intended), a person knows that he or she must accomplish now, that he or she ought not to let opportunities pass, that he or she should invest all of his or her efforts in realizing his or her values. If life were eternal, that would indeed rob all endeavors in life of meaning. There would be nothing negative about procrastination and nothing inherently meaningful about getting things done on time.
The inevitability of death enables a person to ask him or herself, “what can I/should I contribute to others, to the world, to life?”, “what can I/should I experience in the world, with others?”, “what stand should I take vis-a-vis what life is presenting me with?” And he or she is encouraged by the finiteness of life to respond to these questions in the here and now, to rise to the occasion of life–which is here and now! Life’s temporariness allows for the fullest expression of human consciousness and responsibility. The person who is aware of the meaning of the moment is able to harvest this meaning through positively engaging in it, and is then able to store what has been reaped in the “full granaries of the past”, preserved forever. Death, then, can serve as a glorious monument to a life lived to the fullest.
I will leave this post with a question that I will attempt to answer next time. How does the imperative to act now in this life according to Frankl, accord with our belief in the afterlife, where, in fact, life IS eternal? What implications does a concept of Olam HaBa (the World to Come) have for our sense of mission in the here and now?