You can hardly turn on the news today without being faced with manifestations of every possible disaster known to humankind: war, genocide, disease, famine, climate change, etc. Death and its precursors are all around us. How can you stay sane in such a world? How can we ever tolerate the presence of so much death and destruction?
Not to sound callous, but this is how it has always been – for most of history, for most of the planet. If you have lived within the “Western” world during the last decades – however difficult it may be to define the “West” – you will have lived in relative prosperity, safety, and some confidence that as human beings, we have been able to move on from the most destructive of our tendencies. This is partially why we are so shocked about almost every instance of brutality and destructiveness – and why some of us are so disturbed by necessary steps to continue to curtail the Covid-19 pandemic: We thought we would be in control of our fates, and indeed, we have found it isn’t so. We thought we could predict our lives – and were regularly pretending to know where we saw ourselves in five or ten years (what arrogance!) – and are now shocked that the old Yiddish saying may well be true:
דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט
(Der mentsh trakht un got lakht. – Man plans and God laughs.)
Conversely, before the “West” – i.e. before the combined institutionalization of science, democracy, rule of law, free market society, human rights (in theory and imperfect practice) – the prevailing understanding of life was that of the rule of the fates, in Europe, of the Wheel of Fortuna – the subjection of human will under the unpredictable whims of fate. Modernity allowed us to live in the illusion of having our will determine not just our outlook on the world – in a probably ignorant rephrasing of Schopenhauer’s ideas – but also our effect on it, which cumulated in the sustained attacks modernity has waged upon the world: since the Enlightenment, the belief grew ever stronger that we, as human beings, could shape the world more that it would shape us. While I would not want to live in a pre-modern world, a bit more humility and more of an understanding of some of our destructive effects on the world would probably prove helpful for all of us.
Yet if you have not had the relative privilege of living within the Western bubble, life has not been that predictable, and in many parts of the world, it has not been so till today.
Also, unless you are under attack from Russia, or forced to ignore Covid protocols, or are a concrete victim of crime or destructiveness, in many ways, within the West, your fates are still more secure than anywhere else in the world. Tragedies and destructiveness are everywhere, but it matters very much whether your primary concern is a price hike on your favorite foods, or the principal unavailability of every food.
Maybe that already puts things in perspective. There are things outside of our control. There are things or people that want to kill us, infect us, destroy us, destroy our way of life, or our confidence in life itself. That is a reality – a painful one for many people.
If something kills you, so be it. Yet if you are still alive, you are still alive: Your life is the answer to death. What you make of it, what you do with it, all of this is your personal answer to death. Life is short, and ultimately, in the larger scheme of things, probably meaningless. Whatever survives of us will only be a memory, and even that will disappear, so will eventually the planet, our sun, our universe. We can only prolong the inevitable. Whatever an afterlife may look like, neither I nor anyone else can say (no matter how much faith in it they may have) – but it will probably be very different to the point of indistinguishability from our current lives. It will be something else, if it even exists.
All we know is that life is the short moment between birth and death. We share it with others. We can either contribute to more death, or to more life – meaning, to making life more meaningful for us and those around us. If we choose life, that does not mean to not talk about death, on the contrary. But it means to focus on the fact that it is us that can make our lives meaningful – and unless we want to be dead inside, we have to embrace what we have, and who is in our lives with us. The answer to death can only be life.