I have been thinking about death since I was about 5 years old. For much of my life, I’ve had the sense that other people don’t think about the subject very much, or at least try not to think about it, and certainly don’t often want to talk about it, at least not in the West.
Since the pandemic began, however, questions about death, illness, and mortality have become inescapable. My sense is that right now more and more people are thinking in deeper ways about death and the meaning of living a mortal life.
But even before the pandemic, in my experience children have always thoughts and wanted to talk about these subjects far more than most adults. Over the years, when I have asked groups of children what they most wonder about in life, invariably many respond with questions like, “Why do people have to die?” or “What happens when you die?” My colleagues recount the same experiences, and parents and grandparents also relate that their children and grandchildren have many thoughts and questions about death.
For example, in a conversation on Zoom this spring with a group of fourth grade students, we were talking about whether you can be happy and sad at the same time. Most of us responded affirmatively, and wondered together about whether you can ever be purely happy, without any sadness.
One student said, “I agree that you can be happy and sad at the same time. Even though we think of sadness and happiness as opposites, they can sometimes be put together. That’s usually moments when you feel happy in your life and then you realize that your life isn’t going to last forever. It will maybe last a long time, I’m only 9 years old and I have my whole life ahead of me, but still, I want to stay in life and I know I can’t.”
This was such a powerful and poignant expression of the pathos of the human condition: we are mortal and one day our lives will end. I have been thinking about this comment since, and about the ways that children seem so attuned to the fact that mortality is at the heart of our existence, that our lives have what philosopher Samuel Scheffler calls “temporal scarcity.” We live every day knowing that our days, however long they continue, are numbered. Our mortality is the essential element of our identity as human beings.
I’ve been wondering if it is at the beginning and end of life that we are most in touch with this awareness: when death is new and when it is near. The concept of death is so powerful for us as children because it is then that we first become aware that our lives are finite. At the end of life, the reality of death’s proximity leads us to evaluate how we have lived. In between, we become caught up in the demands and rhythms of life and don’t seem to spend much time considering what our inevitable deaths mean for how we should live our lives, except perhaps when we suffer loss.
But awareness of death, however sad and painful it can be, can help us to treasure life ‘s preciousness, and give our lives greater depth and meaning. As poet Wallace Stevens said, “Death is the mother of beauty.”