Death. A forbidden topic in American culture. Yet it is such a fundamental part of being human. Many would like to die of old age at home, surrounded by loved ones. But dying of “old age” is a pleasant illusion that turns into an unpleasant illness.
That’s alright though because I can still die at home surrounded by loved ones, right? I guess should express those wishes to them. But won’t it be awkward to discuss my imminent mortality with my loved ones? Ahh whatever, I don’t give a shit because I’m not going to stand by and have a hospital literally suck the last little bit of life out of me, the last little bits of my existence I could potentially enjoy.
…some time later…
Alright I forced the awkward conversation but when I became incapacitated they panicked and took me to the hospital anyway. They’re scared and confused, they have an incessant desire to fix and to do. Why can’t they just listen, be content, and appreciate what they are about to lose? I expressed my wishes, there’s no excuse. The doctors resuscitate and revitalize my decrepit body and I become lucid just long enough to realize that, to die, I’ve been ushered into the most depressing place imaginable. My loved ones are distraught that I might not make it. They’re in denial of the reality I now feel: that “not making it” is part of our humanity.
The ancient Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, in regards to death, basically asked “Why should we fear the inevitable?” We celebrate nearly every change or checkpoint of life (birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs, travels, etc), so why do we mourn the final change? Modern philosopher Nagel posits that the living grieve out of a fear of missing out. The mainstream attitude toward death seems to have it all wrong. Life should be celebrated at death, not mourned!
Interlocutor: What is it that were are supposed to celebrate when my spouse, the single greatest source of joy in my life, dies?
Response: You celebrate the fact that you had such a great source of joy! The impermanence should not come as a surprise, nothing lasts forever. Everything comes to an end.
Interlocutor: But I didn’t know when I’d lose that joy, it was taken from me too soon.
Response: Death’s arrival is inevitable, but another distinct feature is that we have little control over the timing of that arrival. So asserting your joy was taken from you “too soon” is both selfish and vain. The lesson to be learned and practiced daily is that our joys and pains are transient. To get the most out of our lives, we should not take either for granted. Both teach lessons that equip us to create value in our relationships.
Interlocutor: That’s great and all but my spouse’s death still feels like crap, I want to grieve their death, and you’re telling me to celebrate. Why would I celebrate?!
Response: Look, who was your spouse? … How was their life so impactful on yours and others’ lives? … Was their life meaningful? … How do you know it was meaningful?
Without getting into the age old “what is the meaning of life?” dilemma, our identities and our value (meaningfulness) seem inextricably tied. People grieve death with a greater intensity if the person who died meant a lot to them. As Nagel said, people grieve from a fear of missing out.
If a loved one added meaning to a griever’s life then when they die, the griever fears missing a meaningful relationship they had. With the death of a loved one, the griever lost a piece of their own life’s meaning. The fear then, may be rooted in the fact that they may not be able to replace this source of meaning. This is the funny thing about love. We don’t love people that we consider just valuable. We love people that add a unique value to our life, an inimitable value. Therefore losing a loved one is scary because our love forces us to operate under the belief that we lost something irreplaceable.
This is a societal constraint, an illusion that can be broken down by intellect. A meaningful life is wrapped up in the identity of the loved one, not their physical body.
People come to “pay their respects” at funerals (whatever that means) but they also come to share their memories of who the passed individual was. People talk about what a great manager he was, what a great husband, father, grandfather he was, what great friend he was, what bad liar he was, and maybe even what beautiful flaws he had.
Society tells us funerals are sad and for grieving but they can be beautiful intellectual marketplaces of memories, a final establishment of identity. While living, our identities are constantly morphing as we interact with people. My identity is one thing to my grandparents but it’s a fundamentally different thing to my professor or supervisor. Maybe my parents’ perception of my identity is somewhere in between that of my grandparents and my professor, or maybe something different all together.
Our identity, in essence, is a compilation of all our interactions with people. By controlling how we interact with our network, we have control over how we shape our identity. We do not, however, have ownership over our identity; our network does. Our identity is contained within (and preserved by) our network; it is not in our brains nor our bodies.
This theory of identity has a number of interesting implications. First it evades the Ship of Theseus paradox which is a problem for any physical theory of identity. Second, it creates a dependency on other people to formulate our own identity. Naturally one may have concerns about this: “So if I’m an isolated hermit whom no living person has any memory of, do I not exist?”
The theory has separated identity from anything physical so theoretically, anything can physically exist without an identity. Again, if identity is believed to be an intellectual construct, then many things physically exist without an identity (unidentified animal species). Furthermore, our internal perception of our own identity shapes how we interact with people and therefore shapes our network-based identity. Our internal perception of our identity is also dynamic: maybe I was a theist but am now an apatheist, maybe I was a meat lover and am now a vegan. Intellectually speaking, I’m free to be whoever I want whenever I want. It takes little to no work to make these changes in our internal perceptions of who we are. As for our external network-based identity, we must change our internal identity before we can intentionally change it externally with our network.
In contrast to our dynamic internal identity, our network-based (or external) identity is static. It takes work to change but it is stable once established. If I decided I was an apatheist and a vegan today and died 10 min later that change in identity is effectively meaningless. This is because my network has maintained my identity as a theist and a meat lover.
Our identities are perpetually evolving via these two coexisting systems: a static one and a dynamic one. Realizing this can be really empowering. Suddenly, the death of a loved one isn’t losing a piece of your meaning in life. Instead, it is a calling to be an active member of their network and preserve their meaningful identity and to perpetuate/reciprocate the value they added to your life.
Another way to look at this, is that instead of losing a piece of your own meaning in life, you are internalizing that piece into your internal identity. The value that the lost loved one once contributed to your life is now a fundamental part of who you are, affecting how you interact with your network. If you let it, that valuable piece of the lost loved one lives on in you. In this manner you have preserved the value they once contributed to the world and they are still touching people’s lives in meaningful ways through you and your interactions.
Our loved ones will die… Grieving is a natural (perhaps biological) reaction to loss, so grieve if you need to grieve. But don’t let their value be lost in the abyss of time. Celebrate that their earthly struggles are over. Celebrate the value they added to your life. Let them become a part of your identity and inject their value into your interactions with others.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells toll; it tolls for thee.”
-John Donne; Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, no. 17