How To Die Properly
(or: The Meaning of Death)
You chase that diploma.
You chase that job.
You chase that title.
You chase that promotion.
You chase that salary increase.
You chase that fancy apartment. You chase that life away.
Yet there is something that seems to be missing. Some higher purpose. Some meaning to it all. And it’s nagging away at you. It keeps you up at night. It’s filling you up with an empty hole. But you can’t seem to access this hole. You can’t figure out its nature, or figure out what it wants. It’s as if the boundaries of this big hole is guarded by a daemon. A daemon that begs you to keep chasing.
More, more, more! Better, bigger, faster! Chase everything!
Somewhere down the line, there’s going to be a big payoff, it promises you. But the daemon gives you no reason. No explanation. No clues. It just asks you to trust it.
Chase that life away. Till death. With a blindfold on.
But what if you could kill this hypothetical daemon and take its blindfold off from your face? What if you could access that big empty hole and start seeing your life for what it really is?
I believe you can. And to do that, you need to upgrade your mental software with new information. New information that lets you see things from a new perspective. And that’s what we’re going to do now.
So here you are. A human being. Top of the food chain. A product of billions of years of evolution. And there’s one important reason for why you haven’t been wiped out from the planet’s gene pool yet: you’re an expert at avoiding death. Because evolution has meticulously programmed you to avoid death. At all costs.
And it makes sense. Organisms that avoid death have a higher probability of spreading their genes as well as making sure their offspring survive to spread their genes, and so on. That’s why this is priority number one, before you go about doing anything else.
AVOID DEATH. Everything else is second.
So here you are. A human being. Equipped with an instinctual software package dating back billions of years, that constantly monitors your surroundings – consciously and unconsciously – always making sure you’re avoiding death.
But evolution has no big plan. It’s just a process. And whatever traits and abilities that are generated in the process of evolution, that increase the likelihood of replication and survival, will win and be carried forward.
And somewhere during this process, something very bizarre happened: consciousness. Or to be more precise: human consciousness. It’s so sophisticated that it allows you to think beyond the physical reality that’s in front of you. And this ability alone is probably more responsible for your overtaking of the food chain than any other. Because with it, you can conjure up concepts such as “the past” and “the future”.
Neither “the past” nor “the future” are real (or ontologically objective, if you will), they’re just concepts (ontologically subjective!), but they’re damn useful for sure. You can plan far more ahead than any other animal. You can even learn from the past, not just via the slow process of evolution, but by transferring your learnings to the next generation via language and stored information.
But this sophisticated consciousness of yours comes with a price, or a luxury, depending on how you see it: you belong to the only species that has the ability to reflect about your own inevitable death.
No other animal can do that. Do you see how bizarre that is? Billions of years of evolution has programmed you to avoid death at all costs, yet all of a sudden, you are fully aware that you are going to die anyway. And no amount of jogging or hipster vegan food will save you.
How does your brain choose which one to listen to? The instincts that’ve hardwired you for billions of years to avoid death, or your (relatively) new consciousness that suddenly knows that death is around the corner anyway?
There’s only one answer: conflict. A deep, inner conflict inside your mind. The conflict of being programmed to avoid death, yet being aware that your death is inevitable.
And this conflict must be solved.
Unless this conflict wasn’t solved, you wouldn’t get out of bed. You wouldn’t go to work, pick up the kids, pick up the laundry, paint, sing, talk, drink coffee, play, gossip, love, hate, dance. And how do you solve the conflict between half of your mind telling you not to die, and the other half knowing you’re a rotten corpse waiting to happen?
It’s simple: immortality.
That’s the only way to solve this conflict, and that’s why you have an unconscious, inner wish for immortality. So the meaning of life is paradoxically to end life. Not by death – but by immortality. Thus, everything you do is an act of attaining immortality, by embarking on so called immortality projects.
These immortality projects can take all kinds of shapes. What they all have in common is that they are a means of contributing to something bigger than yourself and that you can be remembered for what you’ve contributed. It’s a way of leaving a trace. Providing for your family, creating art, contributing to the welfare state, building a nation, founding a company, launching a magazine, arranging a tombstone, having a successful career, and so on. These are all immortality projects.
The problem is that the character of your immortality projects change over time. And every now and then, when the world is going through a paradigm shift, the foundations for your immortality become shaky. And you are going through a paradigm shift in this very moment. But let’s have a quick look at how you ended up here.
In the Medieval period, you were basically immortal out of the box. You had a strong spiritual belonging via the church, as priests made sure your relationship with God is fine and dandy, so that you could live happily forever in Heaven after your time on Earth; Spiritually speaking, you were immortal at birth.
You also had a strong societal belonging, as you were born into a caste. Even if you were born as a peasant living in lousy conditions, you at least had a purpose, a clear role in society, and communion with your fellow peasants. And as long as you fulfilled your societal role and spiritual role, you’d be hanging out with Jesus afterwards in eternity. And it was only possible to uphold this God-centered immortality-system because the distribution of information was controlled by the church.
But with the help of the printing press – undermining the information monopoly of the church – Luther killed the idea of church as the middleman between you and God. Instead, he proposed the revolutionary idea that we stand alone facing God. No priest or middleman from the church can save you from your destiny!
This, in essence, paved the way for the concept of individualism.
Eventually, merchants realized that by making more money than you actually need, you can amass and invest capital to the extent that you’d be richer than the king. So obviously this feudal system with castes and a king appointed by God is just made up! The system can be gamed! As long as you work hard, you can become whatever you want!
Capitalism is born, the feudal system becomes obsolete, and finally, you have become and individual.
You’re born as a blank sheet of paper! Your life is yours to create! You are free! You are an individual!
But freedom comes with a price, too. Because freedom demands that you create and choose your own immortality projects. And a stable society needs a consensus on immortality. With God and the castes out of the way, a replacement was needed.
In my country of Sweden, we eventually created Folkhemmet. In the US they created the American Dream. And each nation has its own version of a higher, noble cause, that replaced God and the castes. And whoever controls the flow of information, controls the consensus of immortality; Pre-internet, if you controlled TV and radio broadcasts, the newspapers and so on, you controlled the nature of immortality.
Fancier house, faster car, bigger paycheck!
In the Medieval period, you couldn’t choose. You were given your means of immortality from above. From God. With the King and the church as middlemen. You had one immortality project: serve God, and you shall be de facto immortal.
With individualism and capitalism, however, you were promised freedom. Freedom to choose how you leave a trace, how you become immortal.
But you were too weak. You didn’t dare to choose for yourself. Instead, you turned on the TV and let somebody else decide it for you.
Please greet you daemon. The demon that YOU created out of your weakness to take control.
The daemon is a metaphorical creation out of what you have been fed on how to live your life. The daemon is that which keeps you away from that big empty hole within yourself. And that big empty hole is the conflict of death. And it’s desperately yearning for you to fill it with immortality projects.
Not somebody else’s immortality projects. Rather, your own.
So screw that diploma, if somebody else makes you feel you need it.
Screw that job, if somebody else gives you affirmation for having it.
Screw that title, if somebody else respects you more for it.
Screw that promotion, if you need to suck up to a middle manager.
Screw that salary increase.
Screw that fancy apartment.
Screw all of it.
Until you’re dead certain that your immortality projects are your own and nobody else’s. And if your true immortality projects demand a diploma, go get it. If they result in you getting a job, have it. If they give you a title, accept it. If they push you up the ladder, enjoy it. And take that salary and buy that fancy apartment, if that makes you happy.
Because now you are fulfilled. You’re immortal. And you’ll love you for it.
This story is inspired by reading the following books by Norman O. Brown (“Life Against Death”), Otto Rank (“The Trauma of Birth”), Ernest Becker (“The Denial of Death”) and Erich Fromm (“Escape from Freedom”).
I’m a former musician and scientist in chemistry. Today I’m an investor and global speaker on how technology affects industries, societies and human behavior. I’m on Facebook & Twitter.