In my first blog post, I discussed death and how its acceptance can foster a better life. In this post, I want to focus on the notion of death in its relation to value, significance, and meaning. A pervasive question in philosophy is: can anything really matter if all of us, along with the universe, are headed toward an inevitable end?
Most of us equate value and significance with immortality, implying that something or someone can be valuable and important if and only if it’s eternal; we tend to take a cosmic view of meaning. I want to argue that that view is misguided in that it equates value with permanence, making us miserable in turn; and, yet, it doesn’t have to. When thinking philosophically, we usually take on a cosmic perspective, asking ourselves if what we do and think really matters in the grand scheme of things, wondering if we can ever really affect the trajectory of the universe; of all space and time. From the viewpoint of scientific theory, the answer is no. The universe, in all of its glory, will someday cease to exist, and all of us will be forgotten in time. But does that mean that we aren’t important or special? My answer is a resounding no!
Indeed, all things die and all things pass, and we can never change the fate of the cosmos, BUT we can alter the lives of others and become special and significant to those whom we touch in deeply profound ways. Thankfully, although it can be terrifying or sometimes even exhilarating to consider, we don’t live in a cosmic timeframe; we live in the world of days, weeks, months, and years. And what we do in that time matters a lot; it matters to those whom we care for and who care about us, and it can, if we allow it to, matter to us. Irv Yalom once remarked that although the reality of death destroys us, the idea of it can save us, but that notion can only ring true if and only if we have the potential to matter; if and only if we can create a meaningful and valuable life for ourselves. Death can only catalyze life if life has the potential to be significant, and I think it’s obvious that it does. What Yalom meant, in his incredibly incisive statement, was that death, if we were to accept its reality, could save us from meaninglessness and insignificance. We have the power to create meaning through our affect on the world; we have the power to be great! Through our actions we change and are changed ourselves, in a virtuous cycle of growth. Through the love and kindness we receive, we learn the necessity of giving in return. And through the love and kindness we give, we learn what it means to be important, to really matter to another human being.
If someone were to ask me if my life was important, I’d ask what they meant by that question. Was my life important in a cosmic sense? Absolutely not. Was my life important to the people I’ve loved and cared about? Absolutely. And did that, in itself, make me feel important? You betcha! I’m able to look back on my life with great joy and gratitude over my memories with others, professionally and personally. I’m able to pick out moments in which I’ve helped alter the course of others’ lives and feel important because I was important then, during those periods, to those people; and that makes me truly happy.
When I previously spoke about death as a creator, as well as a destroyer, I wanted to help my readers understand that they were capable of creating special lives for themselves; that they didn’t have to settle for the mundane. It’s possible for all of us to do extraordinary things, but we first have to accept that we have the power to be special, and that power is a part of what makes life in itself special. It’s a beautiful and exhilarating feeling to know that we can, if we try, affect the world around us in profound ways… even on our pale blue dot.