Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
Few things are as scary as the thought of one’s own death. We can joke about it, we can believe that our soul is immortal, we can convince ourselves that we care more about the death of our friends. But if we seriously take a moment to think about our lifeless body, our own vitreous eyes, unable to take a glance of the world anymore, at the end of our inner, vibrant life made of organs and electric connections, we are overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness.
If we feign in our minds our own death, we can’t find anything valuable anymore. Why wake up in the morning? Why work, study, eat, take care of how we look and of our health, think about other human beings, our relationships in general? Why move at all? Why breathe?
It is plain to see how counterproductive engaging with such a thought might be. Especially because it can’t stay a cold and detached speculation for that long. The contrast with our actual life is too great and too close to be avoided, and negative feelings start slithering between our thoughts, accompanied by the silent veil of depression.
Is there a way to think about the end of our existence as sentient material beings without such negative feelings? Is there any antidote to such desperation, however illusory it might be?
Many religions offer systems of powerful narrations about how to face the thought of death. In the Christian tradition, the soul survives the material death of the body. Hinduists believe in re-incarnation, whereas for Buddhism we are one and the same with nature and we should try to bridge the gap between our subjective existence and the material body, which are one ad the same.
However, these narrations stand on complex metaphysical assumptions, which often end up in mystery, esoterism and ascetism. For a more down to earth approach, the material body with its subjective existence is fundamental and the thought of its irreversible death ineludible. So we shall play within our limited existence, with what we have already and not with promises or hopes that are grounded elsewhere.
Recall the motive of death in the Harry Potter saga. J.K. Rowling often underlines the fact that Harry survived the lethal enchantment of Voldemort because of the love of his parents, Lily and James Potter, who sacrificed their lives to save him.
The story might have gone in two ways: Lily and James Potter were overwhelmed by a feeling of love which made them forget about the fear of death, or they were conscious of the risk but they told themselves none the less the “love story” and suddenly their death made sense as a cost to be paid for something more valuable. The second way is much more heroic, but needn’t be more imaginary. Indeed, we often need reason for action and, unless we want to say that Lily and James Potter acted on a bare stronger feeling, we shall admit that a story like the one Rowling tells us is precisely what the characters were telling themselves.
The philosopher Baruch Spinoza claimed that a passion can be contrasted only with a stronger passion but, in the case of the thought of death, the fear of death strongly depends on our imagination and on a story we tell ourselves. Does this mean that we can tell the story we prefer? Not quite, for the stories about ourselves are “monitored” by our friends and can’t be manipulated as we like.
The coolest part of stories is that they don’t belong only to their inventor. They become public and they are shared between audiences and story-tellers. The more other people know about your story, the less your story stays a burden of yours. In this sense, the “love story” between Lily, James and the little Harry created a context where the death of the parents wasn’t a burden for them individually, but it was shared in the wider narration of the saga. Accordingly, it might have been a little less scary and less meaningless.
We are not alone. We value things and people first-personally, it’s true. But people do value us as well – and certain nonhuman animals too. To a certain extent, “we live in their eyes” and we live in the stories we tell and that are told about ourselves. As a consequence, the more we share our stories, the less we need to face death on our own.
The love story didn’t only save Harry that night. It saved all its protagonists.