Every human being asks himself questions about the meaning of life and the mystery of death. Insofar as he finds the answers in his faith or in a religious experience, these are to be respected in equal measure with all other answers, including those of other creeds.
“What is dying but missing the angels?” asks Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger in her 1953 story “Angels in the Night“. Every morning the narrator is roused from sleep by her sister. But each time she sleeps a moment too long to see the angels flying around the house. And as if it were a consoling answer: “It is not we who dream them, the angels dream us. We are the spirits in their bright nights, it is we who beat with doors that do not exist and jump over cords that rattle like chains. Perhaps we should be gentler in their dreams, that we do not frighten them.” In Greek mythology, Hypnos is the god of sleep. Like his brother Thanatos, the deity of death, he is often depicted as a gentle youth with angelic, though black, wings. As sons of Nyx, the night, they like to appear at dawn. In Aichinger’s tale, it is probably Thanatos whom the narrator spies in the morning snow flurry. When she goes to wake her sister, she remains “as still as all who are not asleep when they are awakened, as gentle as only those remain who are not here. And she stayed still when we found her in the yard and lifted her out of the snow that had already covered her.”
Probably everyone wishes for a gentle death, probably best in their sleep. That is how one hopes not to meet death. For most people, the thought of dying is marked by uncertainty about the state in which we will then find ourselves. The French philosopher Simone Weil, who was a devout Christian at the end of her life, wishes to “become nothing” at the moment of death. And elsewhere she writes: “I have always forbidden myself to think of a future life, but I have always believed that the moment of death was the rule and the goal of life“. According to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the nothingness after death resembles that nothingness we experienced before we were born. This is a very hopeful and comforting thought, because it creates an immediate connection between death and a new life. When the American psychoanalyst Irvin D. Yalom visits his mentor, who is seriously ill with dementia, and talks to him about death, the mentor says, “I look out the window and watch life. It’s not so bad, Irv.”
The capacity of human beings to find something in life even in the greatest despair or even in the face of death is remarkable. Austrian physician and psychotherapist Viktor E. Frankl, who survived several concentration camps, believed that the meaning of life is that we, as agents, respond to a concrete fact. It is life itself that presents us with an ongoing task. We are challenged to face what life asks of us. We ourselves are the answer to the question of the meaning of life. “Life itself means nothing else than being questioned, all our being is nothing else but an answering — an en-answering of life.” But it is not only by acting that we contribute to the challenges of existence, “but also as lovers: in our devotion to the beautiful, the great, the good,” Frankl says. And he adds that the “religious person” is distinguished by the fact that this task is given to him by a higher authority: “In other words, the religious person experiences his life as a divine mission.”
Dying is a part of life, a natural process. Every minute cells die in our bodies. New ones are formed as long as man lives. Life therefore consists of a constant process of metamorphosis, as the Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia explains: “Metamorphosis is the power by which all living things unfold simultaneously and successively in different forms, and at the same time the breath by which the forms connect with each other and pass from one form to another.” From this point of view — and here Coccia contradicts the Epicureans — the “birth is not an absolute beginning. There was something before us, we were something before we were born, there was something of me before me.” This thought becomes understandable only when we realize that every species is more or less a variety of another. This hitherto under-examined aspect of Darwinian evolutionary theory leads to a different understanding of the continuity of life. „Life”, says Coccia, “is a recasting of what has gone before.” In our bodies we carry the traces of all living beings that existed before us. At every moment, we are a continuing part of the ever-changing world.
With this perspective on the things surrounding us, a different awareness of the interconnectedness of body, spirit, matter, earth, people, animals or air emerges. There is much to suggest that today we are experiencing a fundamental upheaval that is changing our relationship with nature and thus our relationship with life and death. Man learns to understand that he can no longer be the dominator who “subjugates” the earth, as it is still said in the Bible. Rather, the realization is gaining ground that his survival depends on whether he allows the regenerative forces of nature sufficient room to develop. In this context, it is important that man does not behave as “gracious” to nature, but recognizes and understands that functioning natural cycles in flora and fauna help to establish a balance of life. In this context, Australian philosopher Val Plumwood even argues that we can only overcome the ecological crisis if we start from the premise of “equality and reciprocity in the food chain.” Each is food for the other at some point in time. We can thus understand life “as a cycle, a gift from a community of ancestors” and death “as recycling, a flow that continues in an original ecological primordial community.” This is perhaps a thought with which we are reluctant to come to terms, but it does have its plausibility.
It is perhaps one of the greatest mortifications of modern man to have to say goodbye to the myth that he is radically different from the living beings that surround him on this planet. “For everything around us participates in the life that pervades us with the same intensity as everything that inhabits this planet. We are all made of the same carnal body and life,” writes Emanuele Coccia. From this point of view, a new narrative may be emerging in relation to our relationship with the world: we carry the world within us and we share the world as a living world with other living beings. The existential threat that the climate catastrophe poses to many millions of people therefore requires a different understanding of nature and an awareness of the vulnerability of our planet. Under these conditions, what is the meaning of life in our time? What basic attitude should man adopt towards the world?
We often talk about how important it is to take one’s own life into one’s own hands, to become a producer of life. But, as the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa sees it, “Our life succeeds not where we make the world available to us, but where we make it speak and where we are able to hear it. There resonance arises: something out there touches something in us, and something in us responds to it. Then subject and world are transformed. Then we experience happiness.” The basic tenor of this view is the assumption that it is of central importance to us as human beings whether someone responds to us, whether we can enter into a productive or creative exchange with our environment. This is about a physically experienced closeness to an aesthetic or emotional source towards which I am willing to open myself. Through this opening to the other, I create a qualitatively new and valuable relationship to the world.
An essential prerequisite for engaging with the Other is the ability to listen to the Other before producing oneself. Byung-Chul Han sees in the experience of silence a “religious attitude” . In the Latin verb religare (= to bind, to tie back) we find the etymological origin of the word religion. It is about the search for connectedness with a higher order, which, however, does not necessarily have to be characterized by a hierarchy or power relationship. “The real silence is“, according to Han, “without coercion. It is not oppressive, but elevating. It does not rob, but gives.” In this sense, the various world religions, as well as spiritual beliefs, are an inexhaustible reservoir for providing answers to questions of existence and the transience of life. Their institutional teachings deserve respect and recognition if they serve the protection of our planet, promote peaceful coexistence as well as the development of the individual and do not claim exclusive truths for themselves.
The answers to the question of the meaning of life and the mystery of death are most likely to be found when we succeed in establishing a relationship between our innermost being and the cosmos. This relationship may be spiritual or religious in nature. Or it may be shaped by the scientific realization that most of our atoms, except helium and hydrogen, were once created from stardust, that they were there when our parents waltzed at their wedding, and that some of our atoms will be lost in the vastness of the oceans in the future.
This essay is written complementary to Thesis #4 of our paper 48 Theses — How we can live together better, that you can find at https://48thesen.de/en/. This series will be continued. Further information about the author on my LinkedIn profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-udo-g%C3%B6%C3%9Fwald-077a711a7/.