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“After all to the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure” (Rowling; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). The “meaning of life” has long been discussed by philosophers and epistemologists alike, yet fewer have contemplated the “meaning of death.” Despite falling short of its counterpart in terms of analysis, the idea of death and the beyond has generated much literature and discussion before William Cullen Bryant. Buddhism had existed long before any inkling of Bryant, preaching a philosophy of releasing earthly concerns and emptying the self of desires.
In his poem “Thanatopsis,” Bryant suggests that death is inevitable and that everyone—that is, every living entity—will perish in the same manner. While humans are biologically engineered to fear death, it is this fear that will ultimately deter us from progress and innovation, and so Bryant is correct to warn against the fear of death. Often people wonder why life is meaningful or if it makes any sense at all; after all, if everyone has an expiration date then what is the point of living? Stephenie Meyer poses this question in her fantasy series Twilight, and the partial answer that almost everyone gives is that our sole purpose of existence is to enjoy life.
Indeed, “Thanatopsis” also mentions life, but almost exclusively from a transcendentalist point of view, asserting that the key to life lies in Nature.
Existentialists would argue that death happens, but despite this we should accept our life the way it is instead of running off to Nature in search of answers.
Despite being polar opposites, both philosophies (existentialism and transcendentalism) agree that life has some purpose that transcends the bottommost tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Life is precious, and therefore the world we live in should be nurtured with the same passion that parents of K-selected species rear their young. In other words, regardless of purpose, the important idea about life is that there exists a purpose at all. This fact is important because it establishes boundaries of thought; that is, so that people don’t get stuck in an infinite “why” loop of questioning. For instance, one might question why there exists a purpose in life at all; in the end, that discussion leads to nowhere. Jim Holt, an American philosopher of the 21st century, walked me through why life exists as it is—an imperfect reality that is neither the most mathematically divine, nor the most ethical, nor the fullest nor the simplest reality. Essentially, people can imagine the universe as a simple equation: __ + nothing = the world, where the blank is determined by what people value the most in their beliefs.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Buddhists believe that the blank should remain blank; the world means nothing to the purpose of life, whereas nothing is what should actually be experienced in life. That is, death is life. There can be no other antithesis as shocking or absurd as that mentioned above, yet when further examined the idea becomes more substantial. Death is life; it is an intrinsic part of living. Even as I write this essay (and as you read it) thousands of human cells among us are undergoing apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Death is life; without it, life would mean nothing. Life would be an endless expanse of everything along the temporal axis, an infinitely large room with infinitely many things in it that are relatively infinitesimally tiny in comparison to “life.” Death is life; existentialists would agree that death is observed everywhere and is an inseparable component of human history, culture, and biology, and Nature herself in “Thanatopsis” assures the reader that death will come to deliver him/her to the “great tomb of man” to share his/her place with the rest of humanity. Only in death can a person’s spirit truly become one with the spirit of man; it is only the body that decays with time.
James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar references this idea appropriately; that which sprouts from the earth must return to the earth. With every beginning there must be an end, for if nothing ends then there is no meaning and nothing special about what was begun. This leads to the idea that life, not death, must be the embodiment of emptiness, for if death is what defines life then life becomes meaningless. In other words, death is the defining 360th degree of a circle, drawn from its starting point back to itself, whereas life is the incomplete realization of the circle. An eternal life could be seen as a parabola; endlessly stretching in both directions, unbound, meaning nothing at the ends (which don’t exist). Death fulfills, whereas life drains. At this point it is clear that death is nothing to be afraid of. Broadly speaking, dying is like joining a new club; in both situations the person becomes part of something bigger that transcends the emptiness of space. Bryant states: “Thou shalt lie down/With patriarchs of the infant world — with kings, / The powerful of the earth…” Some argue that people should fear death because life has purpose, but if death is inevitable then the fear is meaningless. In fact, such fear may inhibit the natural growth of life. Life is meant to be enjoyed; those who preach to end suffering in the world while suffering themselves suffer meaninglessly, just as those who seek to justify their fears instead of ending them fear meaninglessly.
Therefore, one should be accepting of the fact that everyone will die eventually instead of fearing judgment day. However, this does not mean that people should not try to delay the inevitable. While death is the joining of a new crowd it is also the departure from an old one, and similar to the hard transition to a new city, away from loved ones and familiar settings, the old life should not be discarded so easily. Here, the conventional wisdom finally truly holds sway: live life to the fullest. Fear of death should be the least of humanity’s concerns, for the fear itself is meaningless. Life and death are yin and yang; neither can stand alone without the other. Bryant ends his poem with that at the “last, bitter hour” one should not go “like the quarry slave at night,” but instead “like one who wraps the drapery of his couch…and lies down to pleasant dreams.” Although death is inevitable, it should not be treated as an unpleasant experience, but instead, as the wisest fictional character puts it, as a hallowed doorway to the next great journey.
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