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Coping with Death’s roulette game

by Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
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 Death’s inevitability leads all faiths and thinkers to advise us to neither fear nor avoid, lament, or hate death but to squarely acknowledge and accept it.

A plane crashes, killing everyone except a lone passenger – a babe in arms. How did she make it when none other did? A train derails; all but two passengers survive. A child at school complains of a terrible headache. The nurse barely begins examining her when the child collapses. The devastated parents who had sent a hale and hearty daughter to school come back to take home a lifeless body struck down by brain hemorrhage.   

Death makes outrageous chance-based choices as in a roulette game, leaving us stunned, enraged and bewildered – helplessly wondering why it is someone’s turn to go and not another’s. Who decides that, and how it is decided, based on what criteria? Philosophers, scientists, and faith leaders have struggled since the beginning of time to resolve this mystery of when and for whom the bell tolls, but to no avail.

Science has made and continues to make remarkable progress in human knowledge and understanding of life’s evolution. We can replicate genes and organs, cross breed fruit, vegetables, trees and animals, even get close to laboratory creation of life, but we are unable to even vaguely guess who at a particular moment goes to meet death’s call, and why death occurs randomly but highly selectively to take one away leaving the rest awaiting their turn to take the lethal ride.

Human endeavor and achievement appear self-defeating in the face of unexpected suddenness of death. That is not to deny that death can become a yearning and a blessing for those suffering from painful or terminal illnesses. Even then, as first person accounts of euthanasia suggest, much anguish precedes the decision by the sufferer to have life’s switch turned off.  

Philosophers across centuries have sought to address both the certainty of death and the uncertainty of when it occurs. Taking cognizance of death’s inevitability, they have focused on reducing the fear of death, making life’s termination a more acceptable and less scary event. “Death and pain are not frightening” Epictetus said. “It’s the fear of pain and death we need to fear.”

Innovative thinkers over centuries have sought to reduce death’s fear and doom by re-defining death. Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus asserted that “Death is nothing to us. When we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not.” Putting death outside the capability of being experienced by a person may be comforting, but it does not soften the anguish over not knowing when one’s life will end or why only a particular individual’s life span is cut short.   

Death’s randomness and the realization it is life’s sole event over which we have no control undercuts human confidence and advancement both at the individual and at the aggregate societal level. Disheartenment inevitably causes stoic cynicism leading us to the self-defeating belief that while we may be able to delay death through good health and the avoidance of danger, it will ultimately find us whether we are ready for it or not.

Interestingly, two contrasting responses occur in dealing with death’s “uncertain (i.e., unscheduled) certainty”. Some despair and give up on life, becoming passive in pursuing their dreams and responsibilities, while others decide to make the best of life’s fickleness approaching it with enhanced optimism and vigor. Wanting to achieve the most they can, they use their time on earth to progress as far as possible. The extreme optimists and egoists even pretend they are outside death’s clutches!

In any case, the human mind is inherently geared to pursue the business of living even in the constant face of death. We attend a burial or cremation of an acquaintance only to come back and resume our normal life with the same possessiveness as before. We know that after we die, it takes minutes to dispose of objects we may have spent a lifetime gathering, earning and preserving. And how quickly the body and physical beauty we spent hours and hundreds of dollars treating, nurturing and grooming is reduced to ashes or to fodder for insects.

That frivolous approach to death as to life is what every faith and thinker has decried. Their concern is to guide us to strike a balance between despair of life and greed for it.

Even as humans seek contentment in creating, preserving, and maximizing assets to leave a solid legacy behind, scriptures tell us to share our gains and fruits of labor with others less privileged than us. They also ask us at an appropriate time to slow down and delegate our life’s burdens and benefits to others, to “let go”. That renunciation remains the biggest challenge to most. As long as there is breath, we wish to maximize its material gains. God and Death lie somewhere in our consciousness, to be dealt with later.  

Because across millennia life after death remains an unsolved mystery, humans are less inclined to let it affect our rational mind and our daily conduct of the business of living. There is dichotomy, however, in approaching death. We accept either that death eradicates the person who dies or it does not, postulating a soul that goes on.

If we accept that there is no survival after death, we have less incentive to worry about afterlife and even less basis to fear it. Once we cease to exist, nothing remains for us to fret about or to cope with. However, if we believe that existence continues in some form after death, we have to look for ways to make non-survival less fearful and to view it in fact as not harmful.

To present afterlife in positive and pleasanter terms seems to be the main motivation behind religions. Christians look forward to eternal life in Heaven, Islam likewise promises Jannat, while Hinduism and Buddhism present life and death as a continuum. To both faiths, death can be an opportunity for liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. That makes death a hugely significant life event signaling either the attainment of liberation or the continuation on the pilgrimage of life. It also points to the need to upgrade one’s afterlife by doing good deeds and leading as harmless and purposeful a life on earth as possible.

In seeking a good life, performing one’s obligations honorably becomes central. Death and afterlife cannot be painless unless our life is led nobly. Christ forgives sins and takes on the burden of our sins but He does not permit us to keep on sinning, instead asking us to be the best and noblest we can be. Religions consequently place paramount importance on conscientiously performing one’s duties and rendering our dues.  

The commitment to karma is taken to another level in the Bhagavad Gita, where Lord Krishna asks Arjun to do his job and to not hesitate in killing the opposing side even if they are his kith and kin. He argues that their death is predetermined and therefore Arjun is merely being called upon “to kill those who are already dead”. Some find that contention disturbing in that it risks fostering ruthless killing by misguided humans turning them into Hitler’s avatars.  

Death’s inevitability leads all faiths and thinkers to advise us to neither fear nor avoid, lament, or hate death but to squarely acknowledge and accept it. Franz Kafka underlined the seamless fusion of life and death when he contended that “the meaning of life is that it stops”.

Others use humor to ease the anguish and puzzlement of death. Mark Twain claimed, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it”. Believed to be nearing death when Thoreau was asked if he wanted to make peace with God, he replied, “We have never quarreled.” “If you live each day as if it was your last”, wrote Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder “someday you’ll most certainly be right”.

Philosophers have given their best to humanize and generalize death by underlining its equitable inevitability. Death is contagious; it is contracted the moment we are conceived” wrote American author Madeleine L’Engle. Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor advised that “Death smiles at us all; all a man can do is smile back”.

It was left to Christian preacher Max Lucado to put a pleasant hue on death’s grimness and make it easier for us to cope with it.

“We see a hearse; we think sorrow. We see a grave; we think despair. We hear of a death; we think of a loss. Not so in heaven. When heaven sees a breathless body, it sees the vacated cocoon & the liberated butterfly.”

Photo courtesy Freepik

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1 comment

niki pasricha March 2, 2023 - 11:04 am

A very thought provoking article. If like, Max Lucado, we believe there is a heaven and that is our ultimate destination, we are more likely to care about our fellow human beings so we can spend our eternal lives in the presence of God, in which case death is nothing to fear. If we believe that there is no life after death then what is our purpose here on earth?
Having said that I wonder why we save all the good an individual has done for the memorial service? Would they not have done even more had we recognized them while they were still alive?
Like hell and heaven is a choice (for heaven all you have to do is ask Jesus to be your Lord & savior), so is recognizing people who make a difference while they are alive. So let’s not save our praise for the memorial service, rather lets recognize them while they are still alive, so a life lived well would be lived even better. If we know our destiny, wouldn’t getting there be a little easier!