Thoughts about death and the meaning of life

A professional philosopher whose thoughts sometimes stray into real life

Spinning Out Abstract Ideas About Matters of the Heart

posted Jul 22, 2021, 9:22 AM by Cliff Williams   [ updated Jul 22, 2021, 10:29 AM ]

Spinning Out Abstract Ideas About Matters of the Heart

Cliff Williams

We professional philosophers are good at spinning out abstract ideas about matters of the heart—love, death, meaning, boredom, anxiety, despair, joy. That is what I did when writing Religion and the Meaning of Life: An Existential Approach (published in 2020 by Cambridge University Press). I imagined truths about these human realities.

Did I feel in my heart what I was writing about? Sometimes. Here is one time:

In the last chapter, “How Should We Live So as to Die Well?,” I imagined that Ivan Ilyich, in Leo Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, did not actually die at age forty-two, but had a transformation of character and lived another thirty years. During these years, he no longer had excessive self-regard. He no longer found exorbitant satisfaction in being admired by upper society’s important people. He gave up showing the power he had, as a judge, to control the fate of those who stood before him in the courtroom.

In the months before his death at age seventy-two, in my fictional reimagining of Tolstoy’s story, Ivan Ilyich is in a nursing home with a friend who is asking him about his life. Ivan is recalling the death scare he had at forty two and the ways that radically changed him. He is not in good health now and knows that death is approaching. The friend, who is not shy about asking sensitive and straightforward questions, asks, “How do the changes in your life affect how you are facing death?”

I put words into Ivan’s mouth that I imagined him saying. I looked over those words a couple of times, refining them so as to get them just right. Several months later, as I was checking the words for the fourth or fifth time, I was suddenly hit: Those are my words, too.

I was stunned. And electrified.

I had unfeelingly spun out words close to my heart and only later discovered that they were, indeed, close to my heart.

Here is what the fictional Ivan said:

“I think I can say that I am at peace about my impending death. I don’t deny that I am sad at having to die—I have lots more I want to do. And sometimes I feel flashes of fear and dread. But in my calmer moments I am happy and content. I have loved my life. I have lived well, at least for the last several decades. I am ready to go over the book of my life with the Divine One, page by page, requesting mercy for the tainted pages and valuing those pages on which the true, the good, and the just are depicted.”

I now carry these words in my pocket wherever I go, tucked in between my driver’s license and library card. They remind me, one who is getting closer to eighty, to feel the truths about my life and death, which is likely coming sometime during the next ten or fifteen years.


I recently told this story to a sixty-one year old former student as we hiked through forests and past meadows in a forest preserve near Wheaton, Illinois. As I read the words I had put into Ivan’s mouth, tears streamed down her face.

What Keeps Them Alive Now?

posted Sep 10, 2018, 7:37 PM by Cliff Williams   [ updated Sep 10, 2018, 7:38 PM ]

Today, September 10, 2018, is World Suicide Prevention Day. I wrote Choosing to Live: Stories of Those Who Stepped Away from Suicide to help prevent suicide. Here are five answers that people in the book gave to my question, “What keeps you alive now?” 

“Ethan” said, “I make a point of getting out of my house as often as possible, engaging with others, and trying to get energy from them. I try to look people in the eye and smile, and I occasionally greet others with a hug or an embrace. Before my attempt, I had completely stopped doing what clearly were lovely things to do.”

“Anne” became new: “It feels to me now that my creator has been waiting a long time for me to accept this gift of grace, waiting a long time for me to recognize that I had been living a false life. It feels as if I have been given a new life, one that is fresh and unencumbered. I have received the gift of being nurtured, like the nurturing a newborn child is given. Now, with the grace of being loved, the power my false self had over me for so many years has been nullified. I don’t feel that I have to be someone else in order to be loved. The anxiety of trying to figure out what life is all about, which for a long time has been an albatross for me, has been washed away.”

“Harvey” does not want to hurt those who love him: “I tried to suffocate myself once, but just as I was about to gray out, I had a burst of energy and freed myself, because I knew my dad would be devastated if I died. And I almost slit my throat a few times, but didn’t only because I thought of my dad. I now feel that no matter how much I suffer, no matter how much I hate myself, and no matter how much I want life to end, I will live for those who love me. I could never hurt them with my death.”

For “Torrey,” who lives in Ireland, there are at least thirty-seven things that keep him alive: “What keeps me alive now is music, passion, food, flowers, birds at dusk, the sun at dawn, frost on the hills, the glaze of the trees, wet autumn mornings, the sky at night, the aura so green from the hills in Ireland, the sound of traffic, the buzz of people, the smell of my coffee, the chilies from my garden, all the fruit and vegetables that grow and blossom, eggs and bacon, a fresh pint of Guinness, the smile of a woman, gentle kindness, opening doors for strangers, the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, the sweet hum of Neil Young, the air in misty evenings, light sleet that glows the roads, stop motion animation, tenor alto choirs, the fiddle with harp, the sound of my Vespa scooter, the bark of a dog, capturing a photo forever in a day, short poems, folklore tales, the smell of marijuana in the late night garden, sitting beside a fire, complete utter desire—everything keeps me alive!.”

For “Penny” it was love: “Love keeps me alive. God’s love. And my husband’s love. All my friends care about me.”

© 2018

46 Reasons to Live Despite Having Attempted Suicide

posted Aug 11, 2017, 2:55 PM by Cliff Williams   [ updated Aug 11, 2017, 3:21 PM ]

In Jay Asher’s 2007 novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah Baker gives thirteen reasons why she killed herself. In response, I want to describe forty-six reasons why real people want to stay alive despite having experienced severe trauma that prompted them to attempt to kill themselves.

These reasons are described in my Choosing to Live: Stories of Those Who Stepped Away from Suicide. I asked the forty-six people I talked to two questions: What led up to your suicide attempt? and What keeps you alive now? I can’t state all of these reasons in this blog, but here are several. 


“Harmony” was shamed extensively by her mother when she was a child. Her mother, who herself had been severely criticized as a child by her mother, killed herself at age forty-two. Harmony tried to kill herself twice—once when she was a teenager and once when she was twenty-three. 

When Harmony was forty-one, she told me, “Up until three years ago, I felt that there was nothing that could be done about my being flawed. I was incurable. But now that I am a year away from the age at which my mother committed suicide, I have a big motivation to find healing. I want to break the cycle from my grandmother to my mother to me. And getting into a relationship with the loving and accepting man three years ago made me realize that a different life was possible. I felt myself healing.”

Harmony continued: “The biggest part of the healing has come from understanding what was going on. It has enabled me to acknowledge that I had shame. It gave me power over the shame. It gave me hope that things would get better. And it gave me relief, overwhelming relief, at being freed from the prison that shame had created for me.”

When Harmony finally understood how she had been shamed as a child, she realized that she did not have to remain in the prison of self-rejection. She developed new patterns of thinking about herself. Because her wounds were deep, her healing was slow. But it was, nevertheless, real.


When “Orlando” was a child he was bullied. His family was not supportive during his teenage years. At nineteen, he said, “It was about six in the morning when I decided to go to a nearby beach. I wanted to die. Everything was telling me I should drown myself. I walked into the ocean. In one of the waves, I went under water. I felt weak and tired, and I closed my eyes. I entered a trance state.”

“A fisherman came and pulled me from the water. He hugged me. It was the first time someone listened to me and gave me the advice that I should press on. That made me reflect. I decided to start over.” 

When Orlando was twenty-five, he said to me: “Something in me says that I should continue onward, that everything will be okay. I see it as an energy that pushes me forward to do the things I have to do, treating patients who are going through the same things I went through.”

Orlando was deeply affected by the kindness of a stranger, who pulled him from the waves just as he was about to lose consciousness. Instead of shrugging off that kindness, he chose to become a therapist so that he could help others who were victims of harassment. The energy that was awakened that day at the ocean keeps him pressing on.


“Aleema” was raped when she was twelve. Her father often got drunk; her mother rejected her. She tried to kill herself when she was thirteen and again when she was twenty-two. For several decades she sometimes did well and sometimes did not, but always hid her emotional pain from herself.

When Aleema was fifty-nine, she told me, “I don’t need to hold on to the horrible things in my past: The beatings and ugly names my mother called me. The abuse from people I thought cared about me. Feelings of unworthiness. The rapes, the molestation, the prostitution. All of the pain. All the shame. I can let it all go.”

One way of dealing with emotional pain is to try to hide it from oneself. Aleema did this for decades. But eventually the pain bubbled up and tormented her. When, finally, she acknowledged her distress, she could stop living a double life and work on letting the pain go.

Despite the severe trauma that Harmony, Orlando, and Aleema endured, they found reasons to continue living.

© 2017 by Cliff Williams

How to live so as to face death well, Part 2

posted May 15, 2016, 6:26 PM by Cliff Williams   [ updated May 15, 2016, 6:50 PM ]

This past semester I taught a course called Death and the Meaning of Life at Wheaton College in Illinois, where I have been teaching for the past three years. Near the end of the first class period, I decided that the course question would be, “How should we live so as to die well?” I spontaneously looked at Nicole and asked her that. She was caught off guard, but after a pause answered, “We need to value and appreciate the people and opportunities around us so that we don’t feel remorse at the end of our lives because we wasted what was given to us.”

Two class periods later, I asked John and Laurie. John said, “We should live with open hands—knowing we will die, not resisting death, not grasping too hard on life, not living as if every day is our last.”

Laurie responded with, “We should live as though we don’t know whether it is our last day. We should live with the consciousness that we don’t know how much time we have left. We should hold our achievements loosely, but still strive.”

Two further class periods later, I asked Andy, who said, “We should understand our place in all of existence and contribute to the overall beauty and good in the world.”

Then Dan: “We should live a joyful life. We do not need to do anything super huge, just achieve our goals for life, which for me is to become a husband and father.”

More answers from later class periods:

Josh: “We should live with the acceptance of death, which will allow us not to be surprised by it, not to be taken aback by it. We will be able to die well if we can accept death. That, though, is the difficult part.”

Melissa 1: “We should let go of stress, which takes away enjoyment. I have filled up a lot of my life with stress instead of just relaxing.”

Maureen: “We should have a balance between being mindful that we are going to die but not so mindful that we fail to live well—a state of mindful ignorance.”

Melissa 2 gave a long answer: “We usually think we won’t start to live until we get to a later stage in life. We have to realize that if we only look forward and keep waiting to arrive at a later stage instead of living now, we will never really live. The idea is that we are afraid to do things until we feel ready, but we never feel ready. We need to start doing things instead of simply waiting. We need to engage in what we are doing now instead of thinking of what we are doing now as the thing we do before life begins, as simply a preparation for real life. Everything we have done is actually real living, though we have not realized it.”

Brady’s answer was short: “We need to accept life as a gift and live by giving to others.”

Katherine’s answer was personal: “I will be ready to die if I have lived a life that is not consumed by myself but is focused on Christ.”

After a long period of silence, Erik said, “I don’t know.”

Luke had previously written a long answer, which he had shown me, but in class he condensed it to, “We should consider what happens after death and choose to live accordingly.”

With a happy smile, Malena said, “When we see the opportunity to dance, we should take it.”

Then Malena asked, “Cliff, how should we live so as to die well?” I had decided that I would not think ahead of time how I would answer the question. So, like the others, I was caught a little off guard, and like them I hesitated before saying, in a halting voice, “We should be open to dancing and exploring and accepting other people’s love. We should listen and love and seize opportunities.”

Two class periods later, I called on Nathan, who said, “We should take a position of humility that says we are limited in our knowledge of reality. This is incredibly freeing yet scary. It affects how we orient ourselves to the future. Life can give us things we thought we would never have. We need to summon a lot of courage to face life.”

Krista was next: “We need to summon a lot of courage to face life and death. It is important to be aware that our friends and acquaintances will die. We need to realize that we may never see them again. This realization changed the way I view conflict with friends. It is important to reach out to them before they die. Someone I knew died recently.” There was a long, intense silence when she finished.

The day before the last class period of the course, I asked Fred, who is 83 (the oldest student I have ever had): “It is important that we are honest with ourselves, that we live each day to its fullest, and that we are always looking to find a way to serve others.”

Natalie: “We should live generously and fill our lives with the lives of others.”

Drew: “We should find meaning in each day.”

James: “We should live without the anticipation of death, but with the knowledge that it will come.”

During the last class period of the course, we discussed what lessons the fact of death teaches us. I wrote some of the answers on the board. One of them was that death teaches us that we are not in ultimate control of our lives and therefore need outside help to deal with death. (This came from Paul Moser’s article, “Divine Hiddenness, Death, and Meaning.”)

I decided to teach Philosophy 347, Death and the Meaning of Life, because I thought a college experience that did not include thinking about the meaning of life would be incomplete. I also wanted to teach the course so that I, too, could be a student in it. As the answers to the course question show, twenty-year olds have significant insights that can enrich those of us who are much closer to death.

© 2016 by Cliff Williams

How to live so as to face death well

posted Mar 15, 2016, 9:52 AM by Cliff Williams   [ updated May 15, 2016, 7:37 PM ]

Yesterday was the first class of “Death and the Meaning of Life,” a half-semester course I am teaching for the first time. We talked about Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Leo Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Ivan was a respected judge in nineteenth century Russia. But his life, Tolstoy depicts in the novel, was essentially false. Ivan simply conformed to the social proprieties of the day, as though he was not living his own life. His attitude toward those whom he sentenced in court was one of condescension. The pleasures he pursued outside of court were trivial and meaningless.

When Ivan contracts what turns out to be a fatal disease, he distracts himself from the thought of his possible death by concentrating on work. The notion that he did not live as he should have enters his mind, but he casts it out. Later, the physical pain he is in becomes outweighed by the pain of moral agony—the tormenting possibility that perhaps his whole life was wrong. Terror and despair consume him. He screams for three days straight. Then he stretches out and dies.

We spent most of the class talking about how Ivan lived and about how he faced his death. Near the end of the class we talked briefly about how the first affected the second.

With just three minutes left in the class, it occurred to me that we could ask a Tolstoyian question of ourselves. I asked the class, “How would we have to live in order to face our deaths well?” I called on Nicole, because she was next in line to talk. She paused a bit, clearly a little uncomfortable, then said, “We need to value and appreciate the people and opportunities around us, so that we don't feel remorse at the end of our lives because we wasted what was given to us.”

I liked her answer. And though I am afraid that someone in the class will ask me that same question, I am going to make it the course question—partly because I want students to find answers to it for themselves and partly because I want to find an answer for myself.

© 2016 by Cliff Williams

Depressed and Suicidal: Jeanette's Story

posted Feb 27, 2016, 8:23 AM by Cliff Williams   [ updated Feb 27, 2016, 8:24 AM ]

"I was like a hot mess. I could not function in basic ways. I could not go to classes. I did not take care of myself. I rarely got out of bed. When I did, I did not participate in normal, social experiences. Every night I prayed that I would not wake up in the morning."

These are the words of “Jeanette” (not her real name) describing what she went through two years ago.

When she was a child, her mother told her more than once that she was going to kill herself and that it would be Jeanette’s fault. One time her mother told Jeanette that she hated Jeanette.

As a result of her depression in college, Jeanette tried to take a bottle of pills. Her sister walked in on her and knocked the bottle out of her hands.

What turned her around was the intensive outpatient program she participated in at a hospital, plus solid medication.

One thing that keeps her alive now is her dog—a certified emotional support animal.

Home page of Cliff Williams

Aphorisms about Dying and the Meaning of Life

posted Jan 23, 2016, 7:12 AM by Cliff Williams   [ updated May 15, 2016, 7:35 PM ]

Some aphorisms about dying and the meaning of life

  • Only those who are able to let go of everything to which they are attached are ready to die.
  • A haunting question: If I were to die tomorrow afternoon, would I be able to say that my life had meaning?
  • One of life's great aims is to feel keenly both its tragedy and its beauty. 
  • Sometimes life is disappointing, but sometimes it isn't.
  • Winning adulation and praise feels satisfying, but we will not be able to take them with us when we die.
  • No one wants to waste a few hours of time, but few are concerned about wasting their whole lives.
  • Some people regard life as a prison that can be escaped only through death. Others live as though they were dead. Still others regard life with joyous freedom, to be savored and loved. 
        Williams, a Professional Philosopher Whose Thoughts Sometimes Stray from the
        Abstract and Esoteric to the Mundane, but Sublime, Matters of Life

        © 2016 by Cliff Williams

Christmas Depression

posted Dec 16, 2015, 6:47 PM by Cliff Williams   [ updated Dec 18, 2015, 5:33 PM ]

Christmas Depression

Alan (not his real name) and I met at a coffeehouse this past Saturday afternoon. “How are you,” I asked. “Not good,” he replied. “It is Christmas season, and I am depressed.”

Alan is in his mid-fifties and has a history of depression and suicidal thoughts. He was treated badly by his parents when he was young, so much so that he had to leave them when he was a teenager.

“I don’t have any family, except for my wife,” Alan continued, with an expression of hopelessness on his face.

I had seen that look more than thirty years earlier when Alan sat in my office as a student. He had no place to live, and he didn’t know why he kept living.

Many writers have noted that there is a higher incidence of depression in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Expectations are higher. Family is not always present. Even those who do not have a history of depression can feel sad and gloomy.

What can we do to encourage people during Christmas season? One good thing is simply to ask those we encounter how they are at a time and place at which they can answer honestly. If we have an expression on our faces that conveys the message that we want to listen, we may find ourselves listening to deep feelings. Listening to one who is depressed often helps them get through another day, and sometimes even gives them a reason to stay alive.

© 2015 by Cliff Williams  All rights reserved

Why do people want to kill themselves? Part 1

posted Nov 3, 2015, 2:16 PM by Cliff Williams   [ updated Mar 12, 2016, 7:46 AM ]

When Louise* was a teenager, her uncle regularly molested her. She thought that was normal, because he behaved the same way toward a lot of young girls. Her uncle said, “I do this because I love you.”

When she left home at seventeen, she felt that there was something hanging over her, something that had not been addressed, but she didn’t know what it was and wasn’t able to express what she was feeling. Everything had been shoved under a rug by her family.

She got a job, but could not shake the painful emotions that plagued her. By her late twenties she had spiraled to a place of darkness. She was in such emotional pain that she started thinking about killing herself. 

At first she didn’t want actually to kill herself, because she didn’t want to hurt anyone else. In the end, though, easing her own pain became more important than not hurting someone else. She attempted to shoot herself in the head, but the gun jerked and simply grazed her head.

Louise’s story is both different and the same from other people’s stories involving a suicide attempt. It is different because there are many different sources of emotional pain—bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress syndrome, parental criticism, to name a few. It is the same because it involves a high level of emotional pain. The pain level is so high that the person who experiences it is willing to do anything to get rid of it, including dying. If someone believes that the only way to rid themselves of pain is to die, they will become suicidal.

A different way to answer the question, Why do people want to kill themselves? is to say that people who experience intense pain do not actually want to die. Rather, they simply want the pain to go away. As Garrett* said, “I didn’t want to die. I just wanted the pain to end.”

* Not their real names

© 2015 by Cliff Williams  All rights reserved

Thinking about Life and Death

posted Oct 20, 2015, 10:09 AM by Cliff Williams   [ updated Jun 9, 2018, 10:55 AM ]

When I was a child, I climbed the tree out back nearly to the top and sat for half an hour, sometimes an hour, watching things happen around the house and up the street. I also thought about things, mostly child things.

Now that I am a good deal older, I sometimes think about death and the meaning of life—my life and my death.

That is part of the reason I decided to interview people who attempted suicide for a book. I asked them two questions: What led up to your suicide attempt? and, What keeps you alive now?

Who better to know what death is about than someone who has confronted it themselves? Who better to know why they keep living than someone who nearly died?

The book is called Choosing to Live: Stories of Those Who Stepped Away from Suicide. It contains stories of thirty-four people who tried to kill themselves, told in their own words.

This blog is dedicated to those people and their stories. It is about what makes a life meaningful.

The book was published in 2017: Web page for Choosing to Live

Copyright © 2015 by Cliff Williams  All rights reserved

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