The Beauty of Ephemerality: Why We Should Cherish the Fleetingness of Our Lives
Last year, I struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to me at the bar of a TGIF at Miami International Airport. I never learned his name, nor did he learn mine. Still, we enjoyed nearly an hour-long conversation: we discussed his son’s hesitance to pursue a degree in the humanities, despite his obvious aptitude for writing and his dismal performance in computer science courses. The man sought my advice as a philosophy professor about how to persuade his son to switch paths.
I will probably never see this man again. Yet there was something touching to the ephemerality of our encounter. I don’t long to meet him again, but simply enjoy the memory of the pleasurable moment I had with him. I wonder if such moments might help us cope with our own ephemerality. Can the same beauty and poignancy be applicable to a person’s life as a whole? Is there something to life’s brevity that is worth admiring rather than mourning?
Philosophers often discuss the urgency that facing death lends to our lives. For example, in his magnum opus Being and Time, the twentieth-century philosopher Martin Heidegger claims that anxiety is the mood in which we authentically face up to our mortality. He leads into the discussion of anxiety by speaking of the “tranquilizing” effect our everyday talk about death has on us. We say, “one dies,” as though death were “somewhere or other.” By contrast, we feel anxiety when we recognize death as something that belongs to each one of us. In so doing, we free ourselves from the unthinking and average ways of living that limit us. For him, anxiety before death brings us face-to-face with the possibility of becoming authentic.
The connection between authenticity and anxiety has resonated with me. During the periods when I underwent screenings for possible breast cancer, I was reminded of the urgency that our mortality lends to life. We cannot enjoy all the possibilities that infinite time might afford. I cannot exercise all professions, and I cannot forge a relationship with every individual I encounter. There are limits on what I can do in life. Consequently, I am confronted with choices. I can pursue philosophy or leave the field. I can be content with being single or seek a romantic partner. Avoiding making these choices is…