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Death Is Not an Event in Life

“All men are mortal” goes the major premise of the standard syllogism. I had read it a dozen times in my logic textbooks at college, but when I saw the phrase again recently it hit me in a new way. That’s because on December 22, 1999, at exactly 2:15 p.m. on an otherwise pleasant afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona, my father died in intensive care after a major stroke. He was only 60 years old. I was there with my mother. We stood silently next to him, holding his hand, and watched helplessly as he slowly, yet steadily, slipped away from us forever. Never again will I hear his deep reassuring voice. Never again will I have the pleasure of sitting with him on the front porch and, well after the orange desert sun sets, engage with him in crazy philosophical speculation well into the night. My father was a simple woodworker, but he was also the wisest man I have ever known.

While I can no longer be with him he is still very much a part of me. Were it not for my father, I would not have taken such a deep interest in philosophy. He taught me to think critically from a very young age–to assume nothing and to ask questions about everything–and for that priceless gift I will always be grateful to him. I remember that in one of our last conversations we turned briefly to the subject of death. I quoted my philosophical mentor, the Austrian thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote that “death is not an event in life . . . our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.” In that same passage, Wittgenstein also wrote something that has always struck me as profound:

“If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”

My father understood the Socratic dictum that the unexamined life was not worth living. He examined every moment of his brief, happy existence and would willingly do anything for another person in need. He grounded himself in a qualitative approach to life, refusing to squander it by chasing after material goods, power, or money as ends-in-themselves, and he succeeded wildly in squeezing every last drop out of life. In this sense, I believe he did experience eternal life. 

Many well-meaning, yet deeply misguided friends of the family, tried to comfort my mother and me by telling us tall tales of how my father was in heaven now. He was with God–in fact, God “called him home”–and we should take joy in knowing that he was in a better place. Wittgenstein knew that this Christian attitude robbed death of its very purpose. If death is little more than a way station on the road to an infinite temporal duration of bliss in the Kingdom of God, then what is the point of this life? This attitude, I believe, is the ultimate insult to a life well lived. The believer thinks (or at least hopes) that he or she will live forever after death, although live is not quite right. How can one live after death? Death is the very cessation of living, which is what makes life so precious and sacred to us. 

To live eternally is never for one moment to stop living an examined life. To live superstitiously is to harbor a foolish greed for an extension of days, to deny the purpose of death by seeking a quantitative, rather than a qualitative, approach to life. Life has as little or as much meaning as each of us choose to give it. But I think life is diminished by the pervasive belief in an infinity of time as if this precious existence were little more than an annoying preface in the way of the greater novel to come. The believer who invests his or her energy in the vain attempt to quantitatively extend this life into a fictive afterlife will inevitably fail to appreciate just how priceless is this life here and now.

In the absence of God, there is no preordination. We tumble into the world without purpose and when we leave it we are gone forever. All is a great tabula rasa, we have no destiny, and there is nothing preceding us that we are supposed to discover and fulfill. I believe that this great atheistic awareness is the solution to the so-called problem of life because to experience such awareness is also to realize that we are free (perhaps even obligated) to fill the void with meaning. The memories of my father mean a great deal to me now. To honor those memories of him, I will likewise strive to live an eternal authentic life by refusing to project my existence into an infinite future. Like my father and all mortals, I will one day die and that will be the end of me. But this knowledge of my true condition is hardly cause for despair; on the contrary, it brings joy and purpose to me because it heightens my appreciation for life. May it do the same for you.