Does Death Have Value? On Finding Meaning In Endings

“The truth is, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” - Morrie Shwartz

Each year the blooming Michigan springtime turns into the bustle and awe of the vibrant green summer only to return to the dark, silence of winter. As soon as we become enamored or annoyed by the sunshine, the tides turn and seasons shift once again.

However, in other parts of the world, life rests in an immortal summer or frost. While the changing seasons has fostered a respect for death, the tropical flourishing of palm trees and cacti provide insight into the beauty of eternal vitality. This dichotomy reaffirms my belief that death is a reality to be valued rather than an event to be feared. First, allow me provide some back story.

The Importance of Limitation

As a therapist, I enjoy many of the tenets of existential philosophy. The core of this ideology is the belief that human beings create their own meaning rather than uncover it in the world. For the existentialist, living is an art. We are to create a life as beautiful as a Rembrandt with birth and death acting as mere edges of the canvas. Furthermore, existentialism denies any sort of afterlife. A lot of people see this as depressing, which is understandable. Some of us take comfort in the fact that when we die we are recycled into the same matter and energy that composes the rest of the universe, while others find hope in an eternal afterlife.

I believe death adds value to life by magnifying the importance of the small amount of time we have to roam the Earth. Though a bit morbid, my appreciation of spring and summer has intensified by the fact that it only comes around part of the year. In return, I have also learned to appreciate the gloomier side of fall and winter.

Recently, friends of mine were discussing the possibility of achieving immortality through technology and the value of life and death. They asked if I would chose an immortal life if I had the opportunity. Given my appreciation for endings, I answered no under the assumption that the more of something we have, the less value it holds.

They explained that if humans had, say 100,000 years to live, it would actually add value to life because we would be able to accomplish goals unreachable with a 100 year lifespan. As our time increases, so does opportunity.

For example, one of my friend’s goals is to see human life expand beyond the solar system. This is something that may not happen for thousands of years and dying would prevent him from ever having this experience. If we wanted to learn several languages, become a doctor, read the literary classics, or travel the world and then some, a exponentially longer life would allow us to do so.

I hadn’t thought of immortality in this way. I had imagined eons of suffering, the increasing pace of time perception and witnessing generations of loved ones perish. In addition, it seems that pleasure loses substance the more we have of it. Such an existence would be like a never ending movie. No climax, no resolution, no point.

Is Death Valuable?

So, does death have value? If one day we are able to live 100,000 years with our consciousness uploaded into a computer; if we are able to “cure” death, would we miss it?

In my experience, quantity diminishes quality. If we live a longer life, we will spend it with less care. In addition, a loss of life would become more tragic, as one would lose thousands of years of life, rather than a single century. There is also the potential that we would not value the seasons of life, but rather be trapped in a perpetual state of youth. However, there are pros and cons to both sides. Some prefer the eternal summer of the Bahamas while I feel comfortable with the flowing of the seasons. So can be said of youth and aging.

At this point, immortality is wishful thinking, though it begs an important question. The importance of the question lies in how it jars the mind out of its rigid values. By doing so, the mind is able to consider new ways to understand and value life. Unless technology is developed within the next century to eliminate death it is wiser to appreciate the moments we have rather than wish for more.

Though death is a rather solemn topic to discuss, I can help but see its beauty as I sit at my desk and watch once yellow dandelions fade to a white hue. They prepare to end their brief existence before splintering off into the wind in order to release its offspring into the air. I find hope in this process. Though I will one day crinkle and crack with old age, I believe I will return to the great hum of the cosmos. The end is the beginning is the end, so to speak. That is the essence of tragedy: to feel most alive in the presence of death.