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

Post date: May 16, 2016 1:26:38 AM

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

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