The topic in focus today is a subject that may seem taboo to some: mortality.
Before exploring the benefits of acknowledging and preparing for death, do watch the video below:
This video narrates a perspective on dying, and invokes thoughts about why and how people should think about the end of life. As humans, we have the unique ability to contemplate the finiteness of our time unlike other living things. Some people actively avoid the topic of death, or avoid thinking about the possibility of loved ones, or themselves, not existing forever. But there is value in thinking about death, in enhancing one’s quality of life. Not thinking of death may give us a false sense of permanence, while obsessing over the fear of dying may rob us of actual living.
Why should we be aware of our own mortality?
Stoic philosophers have written about how the thought of death motivates, and inspires us to live life well. Marcus Aurelius, one of the Roman emperors, recorded in his series of personal writings, Meditations, “Let each thing you would do, say or intend be like that of a dying person.” According to Socrates, the aim of those practicing philosophy, which is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, is to practice dying and death. They believe that by remembering the transience nature of our lives, we are in better position to make the most out of every second.
A timeless philosophical practice of ‘Memento Mori’, translated to “remember, we must die”, is further explained in this article. Despite being labelled differently, the idea of keeping death in mind is present across religions and cultures, such as the Romans, Egyptians, Buddhists, and Catholics.
Some research have also shown that thinking about death or being in proximity with mortality increases the tendency for positive behaviors. When one is confronted with the awareness of their own mortality, it can inspire intentions to be kinder to others, make healthier life choices, and even extend the thought to humanity beyond their social groups. However, there are also studies that show that the terror of death may induce more punitive behavior and prejudicial biases in people who are death-anxious.
How can we be prepared for dying?
Despite having to face morbid thoughts of how one will eventually die, it can be beneficial to think about it early. It is unlikely that any of us can be fully prepared to face Death in the eye. We could, however, tangibly prepare for life after our passing, to give ourselves a peace of mind that when we cease to exist, life of our loved ones can carry on without too many disruptions.
In ageing societies like Singapore, initiatives like getai shows getting seniors to talk about end-of-life issues, and ground-up projects to lift the taboo of discussing death are important to get conversations started. As society progresses with medical advancements, research, and technology, there are more options to consider by the individuals and their families for their end-of-life treatment. Matters such as drawing up wills, signing Advanced Medical Directives, options for hospice or palliative care, are discussions to have amongst family members before something happens. In the UK, a Centre for Ageing Better encourages discussion and preparations for a good death as well. With more certainty of how to carry out post-death arrangements, those surviving the loss would have a slightly easier time coping with grief.
When someone feels prepared for the end of life, it could also possibly mean that this person has lived a fruitful and meaningful life. Unfortunately, it seems that facing certain regrets at deathbeds such as not spending enough time with loved ones are more common. If we had spent some time reflecting on our mortality, we might do life differently
Questions for personal evaluation
- What makes a meaningful life?
- What else could prevent people from accepting and fearing death?
- ‘Interjection’: an abrupt remark, especially as an aside or interruption
- ‘Coveted’: yearn to possess
- ‘Perennial truth’: lasting truth
- ‘Tumultuous’: excited, confused, or disorderly.
Here are some other related readings:
- Recommended books for those in search of the meaning of life and death:
- ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi
- ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl
2. Atlantic: Read an interview with psychologists who studied the effects of mortality awareness and called it terror management theory (TMT)
“Decades later, hundreds of published academic papers have shown that worrying about death affects everything from our prejudices and voting patterns to how likely we are to exercise or use sunscreen. More broadly, they’ve proven Greenberg and company’s original terror management theory right all along: that people deal with death by upholding worldviews that are larger and longer-lasting than themselves, and opposing anyone or anything that violates these “cultural anxiety-buffers.””
3. Brainpickings: Read another interview with a modern philosopher, Stephen Cave, who argues in his book that the preoccupation with living longer is what drives civilization.
“… Actually, it’s the fear of death rather than the love of life, often, that’s motivating us. If people complain that they don’t have enough time, why do they watch so much TV? It doesn’t seem, actually, when we look at the way people behave, that lack of time is their problem. On the contrary … when you look at how much time we waste, [it seems] that life is already too long — so long that we become complacent and we waste great swathes, so many hours. And, in fact, being conscious of the fact that our time is limited is what makes us really value and appreciate the time that we have.”