Accepting Death – Apprehension in the Face of Conflict and the Fragility of Human Life
I will note up front that this particular article is about my personal struggle with death, dying, and conflict. Death is an inevitability for all living things, and it is an indisputable fact that attached to our lives is a finite amount of time in which to live. Additionally, this time does not come in a guaranteed amount. As the old proverb goes – “Tomorrow is promised to no one.” There is no surety that you will live an allotted 50 years, or 80, or any other amount, even if your body is capable of lasting that long. Your life may be ended at any time by disease, violence, suicide, and accident. In no way is it possible to insure your lifespan – the utter silence of the cosmos is assurance of this. There appear to be no gods or beings with which to make deals shielding you from harm or compensating your soul for a life unjustly ended before its time was up. In all ways death itself is inevitable and intractable. Why then do I struggle so much with coming to terms with it, with accepting its inevitability and finding a sense of freedom in the knowledge that – no matter what – it will all come to an end?
This has been my struggle in recent times. Certain events have forced me into the position of contemplating my mortality, as well as the mortality of others. The sheer fragility of human life is a subject deserving coverage of its own but it has been of particular interest to me lately. While it is a subject adjacent to that of death itself, I feel I must touch on it here as it is my fragility – the ease with which my body may be broken, the limits I as a person must endure due to the limitations of my physical vessel – that is of particular fascination to me. My concerns in this subject lie largely within the realm of conflict. When entering into physical conflict with another you are limited in your chances of victory not just by your mind (relevant skill and experience) but by your body. This dynamic of limitation in conflict, limitation imposed by your physical form, that leads to imbalances of power can be extended to all forms of conflict in life as I see it. Conflicts of a political, legal, and even social nature could be solved through raw physical power. Naturally, the physical traits necessary to single handedly dominate over numerous armed enemies would be absurd, and indeed the very thought conjures images more akin to science fiction than reality – tales of super villains and giant monsters destroying countries wholesale come to mind.
Nevertheless, the point follows – if one were given a near indestructible form and armed with offensive capabilities at least equal to those of your enemies, what could stand in your way? Likely nothing, but as such a thing is nigh impossible I intend to analyze this hypothetical from a different perspective – much of my recent grappling with death has been due to the actions of other parties. As I have learned the hard way it is astonishingly easy for other individuals to destroy you. You may be killed through violent acts, crushed by lawsuits, or simply shunned by society through deprivation of opportunities. However, this is where the perspective flips for me. Stephen Cave, in sharing his thoughts on death in a Ted Talk, asks the question “If he could die, could it happen to me too?” It is the first half of this remark that interests me so – “If he could die…”
And indeed, as I may die so too may others. That which attempts to destroy me may in turn be destroyed. Though I do not possess a herculean form and godlike power, neither does any enemy I will ever face. I may just as well kill my enemies as they kill me. Given that, why do I find myself welling with apprehension over death when contemplating such thoughts? Why should I find it unacceptable to die knowing that my foe lies in the ground just as I do? Why should I fear going to my unavoidable grave, secure in the knowledge that my destroyer paid dearly for their prize? Why do so few people fight bitterly when faced with a sure death at the hands of a cruel opponent? Why not loose yourself upon the darkness that seeks to smother you, what is there to lose in using the freedom afforded by the inevitability of your own death?
These are the questions that have weighed heavily upon my mind as of late, all the more so because I know that I am not alone in facing up to death in this manner. There are innumerable people who face persecution and destruction at the hands of other human beings and the reality of death is just as real for them as it is for me. Even so, as mentioned earlier, few will ever show meaningful resistance to their destroyers – even when overwhelming numbers are on the side of the persecuted. With all that in mind the question with which I most contend is this – will I, in the end, be like so many others in presenting no resistance if the end comes at the hands of other human beings? Will I allow myself to go quietly out to slaughter, having extracted no penance at all from my would-be destroyer? How does one accept death so that they may face conflict with appropriate demeanor and hostility in turn?
Every time I attempt to find a satisfactory answer to these questions, to reconcile the void of death and ultimate meaninglessness of all actions in such a way as to assuage my apprehension and quell the rising lump in my throat that presents with these thoughts, it is as if I run smack into a wall of impenetrable construction. Infinite in its dimensions and forged of the strongest material, this mental block seems impossible to overcome. A likely remnant of evolution, I suppose this block formed over a great period of time in humanity’s collective history as it appears to be shared by the majority of us. It is this block which I seek to overcome.
As even though I firmly hold the position that cognition ends with the destruction of the body and that all things in our universe will end – thus structuring my belief that there is no cosmic retribution to fear from violently objecting to my destruction – these facts and philosophical standings have done little to help overcome the wall I face. There appears to be no position or fact tall enough on which to stand and peer over the wall. It is present in all directions.
What then is the alternative? How can the block between myself and a utilitarian acceptance of my physical fragility, of my impermanence, be overcome? I have no answer to these questions, and I admit to this being the cause of overwhelming frustration.
As this is a subject that I am actively exploring I have little more to say for now, but I will surely return to writing about this topic in the near future. There are myriad permutations of the subject of accepting death to explore, and I intend to touch on many of them in due time.