I’ve just finished reading The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death by Andrew Stark. I enjoyed the book, but instead of reviewing it, I prefer to give some thoughts it prompted in me. The author’s goal is to find a way to reconcile people like himself to their own mortality, people like himself being those who do not believe in an afterlife and see life as a good thing rather than a vale of tears best escaped. Life has been good to me, and I do have trouble believing in a life after this one, so the book appealed to me. Still, one might sense a contradiction in the whole project. The search for consolation–arguments to justify a desired emotional state rather than a search for truth irrespective of how it might make one feel–is an invitation to dishonesty, and yet Professor Stark seems to be a very honest man, so that much of the book involves him probing suggested reasons not to fear death and finding that they fail to hold up upon examination.
Only an honest man would undertake such a “dishonest” inquiry. The less scrupulous man avails himself of the strategy described so vividly by Pascal: distraction. In fact, most of us have little difficulty avoiding thinking about the most unpleasant of topics. Pascal’s point was not that we humans indulge in diversions–one assumes there would have been play even in Eden–but that we do so compulsively. The distraction strategy doesn’t give genuine peace (Pascal himself doesn’t recommend it), but it does pass the years pleasantly. From a utilitarian standpoint, Montaigne’s strategy of meditating constantly on death so that it is less alien when it comes makes no sense: inflict glum decades on oneself to have an easier final month, or day, or hour?
Do we not see a cultural residue of Christianity in this sense of the absolute importance of a man’s spiritual state at death? Why is it so important that a man “dies well”? (As Captain Kirk said, “How we face death is at least as important as how we face life.”) Likewise, the overall judgement of a man’s life hinges on his repenting his sins before the end. I have elsewhere pointed to this sense of the ambiguity of one’s life, its mix of good and evil, being resolved one way or the other at death as a key feature of the Christian way of living, the constant presence of the horizon of Judgement.
There are different consolations in the face of death because there are different anxieties caused by death. Is it your animal instinct of self-preservation that rebels at the prospect of extinction? Are you bothered by the experiences and opportunities you will miss? Do you worry that you will be forgotten? Are you frustrated that so little of your potential will have a chance to be realized?
I had an aunt and uncle that were always moving. They’d go someplace, stay a few years, and then leave. It was terribly costly, and my other relatives didn’t understand it, but I always suspected there was a fear of death involved on some level. Settling down in the place you’re going to stay means accepting your life as finite, that the endless possibilities of youth have closed and the remainder is largely set. I, on the other hand, was long frustrated living in apartments; I wanted to move to the house I would die in. To me, when a life becomes something finite, it becomes something definite, and the really meaningful part of life only begins when you finally plant yourself and start building. This is also the way I feel about marriage.
Stark ultimately does conclude that mortality is better than immortality, but to get to this conclusion, he must argue that immortality would ultimately be a bad thing because life would become boring or meaningless or something of the sort. To really work psychologically, I think one needs to prove something stronger: that it would be bad to live far in excess of what we call a normal lifetime. How much better would I feel knowing that life would lose its savor after ten thousand years when I have been granted less than one hundred? Would it not be better to accept Christianity’s honest appraisal of death as a calamity, explicable only as a consequence of original sin?
In fact, I think we can see that an average lifespan of around 75 years is about right. The most important thing most people do, the thing that brings most meaning to their lives, is to raise children. What is the ideal number of children to have? I would not think it would be far in excess of that needed for population replacement, because we hardly want a gruesome level of child mortality in our ideal world, but I know that some readers would disagree; still, we probably all agree that the ideal number is finite. If my wife and I kept having babies forever, eventually we’d forget about the early ones, which is repugnant and threatens to sap the meaning from this, our most significant task, which is tied to the value of particular relationships. If we must come to our last baby eventually, then there shall be an infinite expanse of future after we have completed our work. Sure, we’ll remain part of our children’s lives after their grown, and our grandchildren’s, but less and less with time. After all, they can only maintain meaningful relationships with a finite number of generations. Probably it’s best to bow out as the newer generations move on. Ironically, the ideal lifespan may be shorter now than it was generations ago, despite improved health of the elderly, because now families move away and grandparents have less of a role than they once did. Suppose it takes about 25 years to go from birth to establishing one’s own family. The normal lifespan gives about three of these: the first to establish one’s own family, the second to have one’s children and see the first establish their own families, and the third to see the rest of one’s children established and to taste grandparenthood.
What if the thing that really gives your life meaning is some sort of creative endeavor? Here again, I think 75 years is probably sufficient. If you haven’t written your novel yet, or made your great contribution to science, or whatever, by then, it probably isn’t going to happen. And if you’ve set yourself a task that takes more than one lifetime, perhaps it is something that really would be better the work of a community than an individual.
People worry about leaving their mark, about there being something that will outlive them. You may live on in a sense in the memories of your progeny or in the public’s engagement with your creative works, but these monuments to you are themselves mortal. So the key to this consolation of having something to outlive you is making sure you go first. Very few of us leave a mark that will be there in a hundred years, and none of us want to still be around when that mark is gone.
And yet, I still feel that the faith was right to call death an enemy, something unnatural and unintended in the original scheme of things.