How to Deal with Your Mortality

Mankind has developed a number of approaches to deal with the ultimate question. Which one is best?

If there’s one condition we all suffer from, it’s the burden of being human. Not only do we grow old and die like any other living being, we are unique knows that we must die.

From puberty onwards we live with the knowledge of our own mortality, with the fact that everyone we love is mortal and that one day, at some indefinite time, we will all disappear from view like sand castles on the shore. The world will turn and we will disappear – it’s only a matter of time.

Since antiquity, philosophers have viewed this bitter self-awareness as central to human existence. Man was first described by the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero (106-43 BC) in his work Tusculan Disputations. There he claimed that the human condition would be happier if only we could be sure that being dead is not so bad because then we would have less to worry about when we live.

But Cicero knew, of course, that we have no such assurances. Instead, each of us must find a way to come to terms with the knowledge of our mortality.

to face ourselves

The two most common methods were examined in the film The seventh seal (1957). In it, medieval knight Antonius Block – played by a young Max von Sydow – is so preoccupied with the death all around him, the inevitability of his own demise and fear of what lies beyond that the Grim Reaper pays him a money visit to discuss the meaning of it all.

If there is no heaven beyond this world, “then life is an absurd horror,” says Block. “No man can live in the face of death knowing that all is nothing.”

“Most people don’t think about death still of nothing,” replies death.

So while the fear of death paralyzes Block, according to Death, most of us try to ignore it entirely. But none of these answers allow us to live happily while authentically confronting our mortality. For this, says Cicero, we must meditate more comprehensively on the human condition and develop a different view of our destiny.

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Take a step back

At first glance, this sounds like a good solution. But what is the human condition? Here Cicero is of little help: his only clue is that awareness of our own mortality is part, if not all, of it.

For a fuller answer we can turn to the great German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). In her 1958 masterpiece The human conditionshe describes it as the totality of the conditions of human existence.

Human nature relates to the solid beings of people, whatever we think that is (the most influential examples being … the notion of image of god).

This is very different from human nature. Human nature relates to the solid beings of men, whatever we mean by that (the most influential example is the Greco-Roman idea of rational animal and the Judeo-Christian idea of image of god).

In contrast, the conditions of human existence are varied and even subject to change. Arendt: “In addition to, and in part out of, the conditions under which man is given life on earth, man constantly creates his own, self-created conditions.”

Arendt does not offer an exhaustive list of the conditions of human existence, but she does focus on three of the most important: life, worldliness, and plurality. All three, she says, are closely linked to two other basic conditions: birth and mortality. and this two in turn are based on the most basic condition of all: our earthness.

Cicero claimed that thinking about the human condition in general can help us deal with the most troubling aspect of it: our mortality. And if we let Arendt guide us, that’s exactly what we find.

find meaning

Take the first of the three conditions Arendt focuses on, life. Because we live, we must work, which in Arendt’s terminology means to constantly feed on the earth. In its most basic form, work involves repetitive activities such as eating, washing, or cleaning the house.

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The work can often feel like a futile drudgery: when we vacuum the floor or do the laundry only to find they need to be cleaned again the next day (spoken as someone who has both a dog and small children). But looking at it another way, work can give us the most precious moments in everyone’s life. Because we not only work for ourselves, but also for other people: for our children, the elderly and the sick.

The culmination of caring work is found in a mother whose work extends to carrying and nursing another human being. It’s very hard, of course – but it can also be magical.

The same applies to work. In Arendt’s account, the work refers to the “worldliness” of man. This means that work is the production of the artificial environment in which we live, made up of stable things: buildings, vehicles, clothing, furniture, and so on. Whenever we build or repair a durable object like this, we are dealing with work and not work.

Like work, work can be challenging—but it’s far from meaningless. On the contrary, creating something lasting is usually a rich and rewarding experience. When we contribute to the world, we offer something that other people can appreciate for years to come, and on rare occasions even outlive us.

However, the supreme activity of the three is action. Arendt says that action follows from the condition of plurality, by which she means our existence alongside other people who are similar to us but never identical to us. Acting in Arendt’s sense means doing things and saying things in public that distinguish us as individuals.

At its greatest, action is exemplified by addressing Parliament or waging a major campaign. But it could also mean something very humble, like writing a letter to the local newspaper or speaking at a town hall meeting. In any case, a person communicates with others in the same public space and tries to convince them of an idea or a project.

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Be at home

So we can see that through work, work, and action, it is possible to find meaning and joy in our lives—meaning and joy that are intrinsically tied to the very nature of being human. As Cicero said two thousand years ago, if we think about the human condition as a whole, it takes on a different hue: it appears not only as a burden, but also as a precious and fragile gift. This is perhaps the best way to deal with our mortality.

Through work, work, and action, it is possible to find meaning and joy in our lives—meaning and joy that are intrinsically tied to the very nature of being human.

And there is one last possibility worth mentioning. Namely when a work or an act is so great that the memory of its creator lives on for all time. According to Arendt, this represents a kind of immortality – the only way mortals like us could aspire to.

In this capacity for immortality lies our greatness, she says. And in this way alone could mortals “find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal but themselves.”

Editor’s note: I think that the meditation presented here is pretty much the most important thing a human being can do. I also wholeheartedly agree with Cicero’s assertion “that the human condition would be happier if we could only be sure that being dead is not so bad, since then we would have less to fear when alive.” Where I (and the Jewish tradition) would distinguish is with the conclusion that there is no way to prove the meaning of this world and that the best we can do is to boldly generate our own. With my lights, it’s not dissimilar to just making up a happy (but fictional) story and choosing to live by it, well… it’s better than the alternative evidence from near-death experience research, reincarnation accounts (particularly with children) and various classical philosophical, mathematical and theological arguments are enough to conclude that our lives have real meaning and purpose.

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