- * Roman Krznaric
- For the BBC
“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris or in London because it burns the lips”, wrote the Mexican essayist and poet Octavio Paz in the 1950s. But for his compatriots, who speak about it and celebrate it at the festival annual Day of the Dead, “is one of his favorite toys and his most unstoppable passion.”
This was probably an exaggeration, even back then, but it raises the question of the role death plays in the art of living. Western culture has developed multiple mechanisms to protect us from the reality of our mortality.
The advertising industry tells us that we will stay young foreverWe avoid talking about death with our children, and we hide the elderly in residences out of our sight and out of our heads.
Frida Kahlo painted her 1943 self-portrait Thinking about death while she was bedridden with already very poor health. And it has been interpreted as a vision of death as a path to another way of life.
We must learn to face the terror of death and develop the courage to explore how an awareness of our mortality can help us navigate the now.
Think of the aforementioned self-portrait of Frida Kahlo, who has a macabre skull embedded in her forehead. Or consider the concise wisdom of Albert Camus: “Accepting death. After that everything is possible.”
But It’s easier to say it than do it. One of the secrets to achieving this is not spending hours contemplating visions of the Grim Reaper, but reimagining our relationship with time itself.
Here are three ideas to do it that offer the unexpected prospect of an existential bra.
Dinner from beyond
In the novel by Leo Tolstoy The death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), a St. Petersburg judicial prosecutor who has devoted his career to rising through the ranks of the Russian administration and helping his family achieve a respectable place in bourgeois society, lies on his deathbed at the age of only 45 years old, wondering if he has wasted his life in superficial activities.
“What if my whole life has really been a mistake?”he reflects bitterly.
The story offers a useful thoughtful experiment. If we imagine ourselves at the end of our life, when we are on our deathbed, how would we feel if we looked back?
Would we be proud of our achievements? Would we feel that we have rushed life to the core? Or would we, like Ivan Ilyich, be filled with regret?
The point of this, of course, is that such reflections can alter the way we choose to act in the here and now. My favorite approach to taking this temporary end-of-life journey is a prospecting exercise that I call “The Afterlife Dinner.”
Imagine yourself at a dinner from the afterlife. Also present are all the other “you” that you could have been if you had made different choices. The you who studied the hardest for exams. The one who quit his first job and followed his dream. The one who became an alcoholic and the one who almost died in a car accident. The one who spent the most time making his marriage work.
Then you look at these alternate selves. Some of them are impressive, while others seem cocky and annoying. Some make you feel incapable and lazy.
So which of them are you curious to meet and talk to? Which one would you rather avoid? Which one do you envy? Is there any that you would rather be?
The great chain of life
A second way to make sense of our existence is to draw on the wisdom of indigenous cultures, whose worldviews dissolve the barriers between life and death, and offer a sense of transcendence.
There is an inspiring Maori concept known as whakapapa, which is his word for “lineage” or “genealogy”.
It is the idea that we are all connected in a great chain of life that links the present with the generations of the past and with all the generations of the future.
It happens that the light shines in this moment, here and now, and the idea of whakapapa it helps us broaden the light so that we can see everyone across the landscape of time.
It allows us to recognize that the living, the dead, and the unborn are all here, in the room, with us. And we have to respect their interests as much as ours.
Taking this imaginative leap is challenging, especially for those of us who are immersed in a highly individualistic Western consumer culture.
But we can begin to do so with the help of another experiment in imagination that involves traveling through time. Think of a child you know and care about, perhaps a godchild, a niece, or one of your own children or grandchildren.
Now imagine them at their 90th birthday party, surrounded by family and friends. Imagine his aging face, see what is happening in the world outside the window. And now imagine that someone comes over and puts a little baby in his arms: he is his first great-grandson. Look into the baby’s eyes and ask yourself, “What would this child need to survive and thrive for years and decades to come?”
Sit with that thought for a moment. Then he recognizes that this little baby could be alive until the 22nd century. His future is not science fiction. It is an intimate family event, just a couple of steps away from your own life.
If we care about the life of that baby, we need to care for all of life: all the people she will need to lean on, the air she will breathe, the entire web that makes up her life.
This type of experiment can help us transcend the limits of our own lives and get in touch with the wisdom of whakapapa.
We are all part of the great chain of life. And by recognizing our place in it, we begin to extend our sense of what constitutes “now,” moving from a now of seconds and minutes and hours to a longer one of decades, centuries, and even millennia.
A now that gives us a sense of responsibility for the legacy we leave to the generations of tomorrow while respecting the generations of the past.
Travels to the depth of time
We can also rethink our relationship with death by taking the perspective of “deep time”, recognizing that humanity and our own lives represent the same as the blink of an eye in cosmic history.
As writer John McPhee put it, “Consider the history of the Earth as the ancient measure of the English yard, the distance from the king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. A stroke of a nail file on your middle finger erases the history of Humanity “.
But remember, too, that just as there is a long time behind us, there is also a long time ahead. Any creature that may still exist 5 billion years from now, when our Sun dies, will be as different from us as we are from the first single-celled bacteria.
This deep time idea allows us to grasp our destructive potential: in just two centuries of industrial civilization, with our ecological blindness and deadly technologies, we have endangered a world that took billions of years to evolve.
We do not have the responsibility of preserving the life-supplying power of the Earth for generations to come?
At the same time, placing ourselves in the infinity of time helps put our mortality in perspective. We are just a passing moment in a much longer narrative.
While unlimited time eludes us, its wonders are within our grasp. We can get there with the help of visionary science fiction writers like NK Jemisin or Ursula Le Guin, who allow our minds to travel through the eons.
Or try searching for fossils and holding a 200 million year old ammonite in your hand. Or look at the stars whose light left its source before humans evolved.
Or make a pilgrimage to an ancient tree and, as the novelist Richard Powers put it so beautifully, experience life “at the speed of wood”.
As we flick screens on our phones and hit the “Buy Now” button, let’s pause and open our imaginations to a longer “now.” This is how we begin the journey beyond death. This is how we become good ancestors.
*Roman Krznaric esphilosopher. This article is based on his new book The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World.
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