I’ve said something similar before, but Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) summed it up nicely: as human beings, our awareness of our own mortality is the price we pay for a frontal lobe able to come up with writing, indoor plumbing, and the Mona Lisa.
My favorite writer, Jorge Luis Borges, thinks of such awareness not as the price to be paid to be human but as a gift: “To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death…” I think that is a lovely way to get at the issue: what makes humans special — and maybe even human — is their awareness of death. To be human is to know we will die. To ignore that fact is to forfeit being human. Leave it to Borges to position the knowledge of our own mortality as the very source of our specialness as a species.
We humans may not be ignorant of death, but many of us sure do try our best to ignore it. We can live with the fact that we will die … someday … just not today, just not this hour … not this next minute … And yet it could happen. Who can guarantee 100% that he or she will be alive ten minutes from now? One minute from now?
Such a thought is uncomfortable at best. Some people deal with it by sidestepping it (there is an afterlife; there is reincarnation). I prefer to deal with it head on: I am alive; soon I will be dead. And that will be the end of me.
What to make of life then? Is it worth nothing because it will end? Or is it precious precisely because it will end?
I take door number two: I might die soon, tonight, even, and that will be that. Let me then do the best I can to live as fully as possible right now, tomorrow if I should wake up, and the day after if I am blessed with it.
Is there something I need to do which I have not yet done?
Then let me start right now.
At least I’ll die trying.