The New Mindscape
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The New Mindscape

The Meaning of Death

And what it tells us about life

The New Mindscape #A4–1

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” wrote Albert Camus, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”[1]

In the Myth of Sysiphus, Camus pointed out the absurdity of existence. And so, we can’t stop asking ourselves if it’s even worth the trouble to live.

But Camus considered that even that question is absurd — because, since there’s no intrinsic meaning in the world, we can never answer the question about the purpose of existence. No matter what we do, we will die — it will all end. Death has no more meaning than life.

Instead, for Camus, we should accept the absurdity of our life, and live it to the fullest, in its complete absurdity. We should neither fall into despair, nor hope. Despair finds its ultimate expression in suicide, while hope tries to deny the absurdity of life by imagining some future religious afterlife, in which we find meaning in death, or after death.

And so, says Camus, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy,”[2] neither giving up his meaningless task, nor trying to give it some illusory significance — but simply living every moment of his task to the fullest. Love life, he said:

“The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. Yet people have often told me: there’s nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow.”[3]

Camus especially rejected all religious conceptions of an afterlife, or of the immortality of the soul, which he considered as illusory escapes from the unavoidable absurdity of life and death.

But, illusory or not, humans have been thinking about the meaning of death, and imagining an afterlife, since the earliest records of human life, which are often found in the form of tombs. Humans have buried their dead, and placed objects in tombs, presumably for the dead to take along with them into the next world, for at least 100,000 years.

The capacity to imagine people existing without their bodies, and continuing to live after their physical death in another place or dimension, is perhaps one of the key distinguishing features of human beings, in contrast to other animal species.

Tomb of Téviec, Museum de Toulouse, France. Two skeletons of women between 25 and 35 years old, died a violent death, with several head injuries and impacts of arrows. The two bodies were buried with great care in a pit . All protected by antler. The grave goods include flint and bone (mainly wild boar) offerings? and funeral jewelry which is made of marine shells drilled and assembled into necklaces, bracelets and ankle rings. Some of them have a few bone objects with engraved lines. Photo credit: Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons.

In most, if not all, cultures in the world, people report the dead visiting them or speaking to them in their dreams, or they feel the presence of the dead around them. Whether or not these dreams and feelings are true or just “receptive imaginations”, for the people concerned, they confirm their sense that the souls of the dead continue to live in another realm or dimension.

Your body will die. This is the truth about your body.

You want your life, and your death, to have meaning. This is the truth about your spirit.

You have the capacity to imagine yourself beyond your body, beyond space and time.

Making meaning, or finding meaning, is an essential function of the spirit.

Think about it: if your life were utterly and completely meaningless, you’d ask yourself, why even bother living? As Sartre said, you’d even hate yourself for being too weak to end your life.

So it’s as if a life without meaning is not a life at all.

On the other hand, a life full of meaning is… a true life.

So, if your body is alive but there’s no meaning, it’s as if you’re already dead. Like a zombie.

So, you have different levels of life.

Your physical life, or the life of your body.

Your intellectual life, or the life of your mind.

Your spiritual life, or the life of your spirit.

It’s possible to be physically alive but intellectually and spiritually dead.

Just like an animal: a body seeking for food, shelter and survival.

It’s possible to be biologically and intellectually alive but spiritually dead.

Think of someone who works in an office, using intellectual procedures to think with his mind all day, but without any meaning and purpose.

And it’s possible to be biologically, intellectually and spiritually alive: full of bodily vitality, seeking and enjoying intellectual challenges, and full of meaning and purpose.

Spiritual life gives added vitality to intellectual and biological life.

Seeking meaning and purpose, your mind is eager to think about more things, to understand more things, to discover more things, and to solve more problems.

With meaning and purpose, there are so many more things to do in life, keeping you active and motivated to keep healthy.

Even if you don’t want to live biologically, you can’t just “stop” living: so Sartre complained about not being strong enough to put an end to his life. Suicide requires huge effort and willpower.

Even if you don’t want to live intellectually, you can’t just “stop” thinking. And if you don’t want meaning, you can’t stop yourself from it.

So even Camus decides to find meaning in the meaninglessness of Sisiphus. He makes the absurd into something full of meaning. He gives spiritual significance to the absurdity of life, and finds spiritual joy from it.

Life is flowing through you at all levels. The life of your body, your mind and your spirit. The question is how to channel it.

This essay and the New Mindscape Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change, with the support of the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

[1] Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 3.

[2] Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 123.

[3] Camus, “Nuptials at Tipassa,” 69.



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David A. Palmer

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.