Death is inevitable.
Calm down, there’s no need to raise the terror alert level to a darker shade of orange. Death is a reminder of man’s limitations that serves several purposes beyond the morbid.
Everyone is faced with the certainty of his or her ultimate demise. Whether enabled by anxiety or lack of distractions, the contemplation of this certainty breeds tormenting questions.
Unfortunately, empiricism only offers up answers as far as observation allows. The result is a void filled with speculation about what it means to die, and what happens after that event occurs — if anything.
The worst of these speculations is the concept of eternal existence after physical death.
Immortality is dreadful. The belief in any version of an afterlife has negative earthly consequences. The belief in immortality primarily serves to alleviate the anxiety surrounding the physical death of oneself and others by offering an alternative to finality.
But it doesn’t work. Once again, death is inevitable. Simply put, a belief in immortality fails miserably at completing its goal.
Immortality, or any idea of an afterlife for that matter, breeds a focus on dying. Fanaticism without a fear of death is particularly dangerous because the ultimate consequence, the absence of one’s own life, has been alleviated by a promise of a better eternal future.
This illustrates the largest consequence of a belief in eternal existence: the devaluing of life in the present. After all, if existence on Earth is temporary, then it is infinitesimally small compared to an eternity. In some speculations, physical life is given significance by issuing ultimatums and rewards based on one’s actions on Earth.
Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century religious philosopher, was rattled by the idea of an ultimatum and enchanted by the idea of an eternal reward. He illustrated the immortality quandary as a wager and suggested that — at the very least — one should hold a belief in a deity and an afterlife because a person would have nothing to lose and possibly everything to gain by holding such a belief.
Pascal, however, forgot the ante. The focus on the intangible concept of the afterlife distracts from the brilliance and splendor of physical life. More importantly, the fear-inducing authoritarian system of ultimatums and rewards present in many religions tarnishes the human spirit.
The impossibility of life without death should not be viewed negatively. Many people hold a narrow view of what death means and how it affects others. While it may be hard to look past the loss of a human life and see the positives without religious and spiritual intervention, it is possible. The awareness of death enables man to achieve continuity in his principles and character. The realization of death fuels the desire to find a meaning in life and fosters a heightened sense of reality and finality.
Excuses are abandoned, leisure and happiness are seen as paramount, and a sense of urgency is placed on experiencing and accessing the best life possible when death is kept a consideration. The structure of priorities changes when confronted with looming death. Stress over the next pay raise or keeping the lawn well maintained seems utterly insignificant when compared to death. This practical relativism makes what is truly valuable in the living world blindingly apparent.
Death may even offer a diplomatic and social bridge. Considering the myriad of differences and divisions between people, mortality is one of the few universal traits.
Without death, many human characteristics would be invalid. The hero could not be courageous, martyrs would never exist and skydiving would certainly not be as fun. Mortality gives life a meaning that even gods could never know.
Daniel Dunn is a junior majoring in Philosophy.