what 'death' has taught me about life, Part i

what 'death' has taught me about life, Part i

"I'm scared that I am going to die one day..."

Death is something that most of us try very hard to not think about. It seems unpleasant, so we put it out of our mind and hardly stop visually thinking about our death even when it could be staring directly at our face. But it's unarguably a fact that we are only on this planet for an incredibly short while, and then we disappear forever.

Knowing that we'll eventually die influences our behavior on how we should live, "am I going to waste another day or do I want to seize what I have now and make the most of it?" The problem is, we never have that crystal ball of how life will go for us.

  • The process of dying v.s. death itself

To make life seem as valuable as it could be, we must talk about the nature of death. We feel terrified of the idea of losing our lives because death is filled with dread, terror, and fear. But what is it that makes life such a valuable gift that's worth embracing and makes death horrible?

Some people say they fear the process of dying. They associate the experience with something harmful. If you get eaten by a tiger, being chewed into pieces is unpleasant!

But, what more people meant to suggest their fear is death itself – being died. But why would death itself necessarily be bad? When your body decays, you don't experience anything! The truth is that people fear death merely because of the absence of good. We feel deprived thinking about our disappearance from this beautiful world because there is still so much more out there that is worth experiencing.

  • Anger and Sadness

None of us know in particular when we are going to die. The unpredictability of when death will occur makes us nervous as no precautions can be taken. "Will I die at an early age of 20 or at a late age of 90?"

Death is a non-negotiable condition that you can certainly be guaranteed one day it'll come. Knowing the certainty of this lousy event's occurrence, the question now turns to, 'how much fear is appropriate for death?' If a grade sixer comes to me saying, "the fear of death strikes me that I am struggling to fall asleep!" I'd probably tell him the size of the harm is a bit disproportionate – the fear of death needs to be proportionate to the likelihood.

Personally, I would not say anger is an appropriate response. We need to carry a sense of gratitude. God doesn't owe you; you should feel extremely lucky that you are able to have a life and get what you've gotten. Most atoms don't get the chance to be alive, fall in love, and share their dreams with others.

Of course, fear may not be the only emotion that's involved. People can carry other attitudes toward death, such as anger. They choose to curse God for only giving them 79 years (the average life expectancy in the US) when the world is incredible that it'd take thousands of years to exhaust what it has to offer! 'Why does God condemn us to death?' asked a resentful person. Or, it can even be sorrow. Some may think life is too short and want more of it, 'it's a pity that we don't get to live longer lives.'

"How should I live knowing that I will eventually die?"

Across our lives, we make bad choices – aiming for the wrong goal (leisure vs. work), flubbing our exams, getting into relationships that don't make us happier...

What the world has to offer is unbelievably rich, but morality gives us limited opportunities to start everything over from failures; the fact that we only have infinite short life spans restricts the time for us to redo things. Imagine if Einstein could live for a few more decades and stay healthy. How much more could he have done in theoretical physics?

  • What should I fill my life with?
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us. – Book of Mormon

At night when nobody's around, I sometimes ask myself, "how would I want to live my life to make it more worthwhile?"

The first strategy I can go for is to choose the easy path. Given the danger of failure if I aim too ambitiously, I could settle for the kinds of goals I can virtually be guaranteed to accomplish. For instance, seeking the pleasure of eating ice cream, having company, or lying on a nice beach...

But those contents don't add much value to my life; the pleasure I can derive from the goods I can achieve easily are as small as potatoes. Most valuable goods in life don't come readily with guarantees of achieving them – build up your own business, write a novel, compose a symphony... The things that bring you greater joy come with greater chances of failure.

  • How long do I want to live?

We are greedy people. The common ground is that we think the more years we can live, the better. But of course, we all know that quantity isn't the only thing; quality matters as well.

 "Once I lived like the gods, more is not needed.” - Friedrich Hölderlin

Hölderlin, a German poet, holds a view that quality trumps quantity. If he can ascend the height and do something great once, that'd be enough for him because, as he believes, his accomplishments will continue to last after his death; he would live on through his works.

"One century later, people will still be debating, talking, and learning about my work. I have achieved something beyond me, and that's significant and worth doing." – Friedrich Hölderlin

However, Woody Allen, an American film director, has a completely different approach to this matter.

“I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” - Woody Allen

Honestly, I wouldn't wish to have an immoral life. I don't mean the way we die is not regrettable (death comes too soon), but when life becomes infinitely long, and all the goods eventually run out, living longer becomes undesirable. But still, I, like many of us, aspire to be semi-immoral as long as life still has something to offer to me.


The only variability of death in our hands is that we can control how long we live; we have the choice of ending our life earlier than it'd otherwise.


As teenagers, with the pressure of school's loaded work, parents' unrealistic expectations, and peers' judgmental voices, we become more and more stressed over the years. Some perhaps even have thought about or attempted suicide because it's a natural tendency for us to get caught up in negativity.

When thinking about under what circumstance is suicide a rational choice, some people go for never. They believe that life itself, being alive, is valuable intrinsically (we can think, plan and experience things). Suicide is a crazy, irrational act, and we'd never be better off dead. In fact, even when your life is less good than it had been or less good than all your friends' lives around you, it is still worth living!

But clearly, this approach doesn't come across many young people's mind after failing in class, being criticized by both their teachers and parents, and coming to the conclusion that their lives can not possibly be worse than being in the situation they are in now. In order to help more of them escape from the dilemma (keep living or kill themselves) and live better lives, we must introduce them to the religion of Buddhism.

Buddhism takes the idea that life is suffering. If you really think hard about the underlying nature of life, we are surrounded by a world of pain, disease, and death. By viewing the world itself as negative and suffering outweighs the good, we can be freed from attachment to those goods. So that when we lose them, the loss we feel can be minimized. Buddhism is somehow aligned with the idea of pessimism. It tries to teach us the right understanding of the world, to accept that the losses are there and there isn't much we could do about it...

  • God's will

Talking about suicide, we must discuss its morality; is suicide morally acceptable or morally forbidden? The Bible tells us the act of suicide is impermissible because it's against God's words. Its faithful disciples would argue that God created you to let you stay alive and recreate; the contemplation of you wanting to end your life thwarts God's will.

But let's raise an example to examine the validity of this argument. As I'm walking on the street on my way to work, I see someone crossing the road, and a car is about to hit him from the side. Without a second thought, I rushed to the front and pushed him out of the way; I saved him. But if the person I saved was a true believer in the Bible. He/she should complain, "it 's God's will that I get hit by this car!"

If this were really going to happen to me, I'd be stunned by their implausible argument in which I'd say, "ohh, no, no, no, my friend. It's God's will that I save your life at this time of your life right here."

From what I see, this religious argument is seriously flawed, and it doesn't give us any guidance. The Bible also tells us not to eat any pork, not to mix various materials in a single item of clothing, and to stone the teenager to death if he/she's rude to their parents. How many Christians or Catholics follow that? If the Bible were really the instruction manual of God and it's there to give you moral guidance, you can't pick and choose which one to follow!

The second religious argument of why suicide is, in principle, morally unacceptable is about the virtue of gratitude. We have an obligation to stay alive because if God gave you the wonderful gift of bringing you to this world, you owe him a debt. To repay him, you need to keep the gift. Meanwhile, it implies that killing yourself is rejecting the gift, and that's being ungrateful to God; you should be sent to hell.

But oddly enough, if the life (the gift) God has given to you is horrible, do you still owe him anything? He wouldn't want you to live miserably either (assuming that God is good). So is suicide unconditionally immoral?

  • The deprivation account – when life offers you nothing else but pain

Having said that for most of us, death is severely bad because it deprives us of the good things in life that we'd only get if we didn't die. But when, if ever, would it be true that you're better off dead? Wanting to die means you can't benefit any good by staying alive: love, accomplishment, knowledge...

One empirical example that is commonly mistaken is that rescuing somebody from ending their life is always a virtuous act. However, I am here to say that you might not be giving them a favor. Why? Because from saving them, we've unconsciously assumed that their life has been promising that losing it would be bad.

What if the person you saved is full of misery, suffering from frustration and disappointment? Think about those in their terminal stage of cancer. The illness is causing them a great deal of physical pain, and they are less and less capable of doing things that give their life value (reading poetry)... Rescuing them from hanging only makes matters worse for them! Sometimes, some people could be better off being dead.

But from a utilitarian's (maximum happiness for the greatest number of people point of view, we not only need to take into the consequence of the person's suicide but also those who might be affected by the act – families and loved ones; the people who most direct know and care about you. By saving those who want to end their lives, you are helping more than one individual (avoid causing their closed ones a great deal of emotional distress).

A worth living life

Hedonism presents a view that pleasure is the highest good and proper aim of human life. The quality of life is a matter of total pleasure minus the sum of pain while considering endurance (length of life). The greater the positive is, the more your life is worth living.

For those who are badly injured from involving in wars, when they are suffering from an agonizing burn, immobilized in pain, and hospitalized for a long period of time, it's possible that the thought of 'free me from suffering that I'd otherwise have to undergo by suicide' would pop up to their mind. But with the constant progress in medicine, there's always a possibility of curing or remitting the disease. Suicide means throwing away the chance of recovery; the pathway of death you chose robs a chunk of life that would've been good for you overall.

At certain times, you might feel things are sliding down. But we need to recognize that life is a balance of both positive and negative. Remember, the rainbow only comes out after the rain. Perhaps now life feels negative, but it is positive overall. None of us have a certain prophecy of how our life will hold. After all, we live in a world where no single act typically has only good or bad consequences; our choices are often mixed packages.


Death | Open Yale Courses

Lectures 22, 23, 24, 25, 26.