Saturday, June 23, 2012

Life and death

What is the meaning of life?  Why are we here?  These are questions that humankind has asked again and again for thousands of years.  Of course there is no definitive answer; how could there be?  Still, almost every human being ponders these questions at some point in their lives.  Underlying our desire to assign meaning to our existence is the everpresent knowledge of our own mortality.  Perhaps it is because our lives are finite that we pursue our quest for meaning with such urgency.  Some would even argue that it is death that makes life meaningful.

I understand how an argument could be made for this idea.  Life is more precious to us because we know it will not last forever.  We cherish our time on earth more because we know it is limited. This is why people who have endured a life threatening ordeal and survived oftten gain a new appreciation for life; they realize with renewed clarity how quickly it can all end. 

While the certainty of eventual death makes life more meaningful for us, it also tends to generate a significant amount of fear and anxiety.  There are, of course, people who have no fear of death, but they do not represent the majority.  Most of us are at the very least uncomfortable with death; some of us are terrified of it.  Which brings me to a question I've been considering a lot lately: How do we cope with the reality of death? 

I have periodically struggled with this question for many years.  Death scares me.  The prospect of losing the people I love scares me.  The knowledge that I will someday die scares me.  Every time I try to think about death -- to come to terms with it -- I become deeply depressed.  I typically spend a few days struggling to sort out my thoughts and feelings.  (Although on one occasion I spent a whole semester doing this.  I was taking a class called "On Death and Dying."  9/11 happened that semester too.  It was probably the most depressing semester I ever spent in college).  Eventually, I decide that it's probably best for me to stop thinking about it; if I remain in despair for too long I fear I will find it difficult to get out.  I see no benefit in allowing myself to become depressed.  Unfortunately, I am never able to make sense of it all; I simply push all thoughts of death from my mind and throw myself into the business of living life.

So how do we live with the knowledge that we - along with everyone we love - will die?  I think most people do what I eventually do whenever thoughts about death arise; they try not to think about it.  There comes a point for all of us, however, when we are forced to think about death.  It might happen when a loved one dies, either unexpectedly or after a long illness.  It might happen when we (or someone we love) are diagnosed with a terminal illness.  It might not happen until we are very old and at the end of our lives.  Whenever it happens, we will be forced to confront the thoughts and feelings we have been avoiding; it is inevitable.  I believe, when the time comes, it is easier for people to "come to terms" with death if they have a head start. 

Dr. Paul Wong ( is sort of the guru of "death psychology."   Among his many roles, he is the president of the International Network on Personal Meaning ( and of the International Society for Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy ( Dr. Wong believes that the best way to accept death is to live a meaningful life.  He and his colleagues have developed something they call the "meaning management model."  He asserts that, "Meaning management may be the only effective psychological model that protects us against loss and death." 

Dr. Wong believes that every experience has the potential to be meaningful, including death.  The path to a meaningful death, he says, begins with examining our values, determining what is important to us, and then consciously engaging in activities that embody these values.  In other words, we prioritize the things in our life we find the most meaningful.  We stop making excuses for why we can't get around to doing whatever it is we claim is so important to us.  We make spending time with those we love a priority.  We invest time and effort into identifying and fulfilling our "purpose" in life.  We live with the awareness that tomorrow is not guaranteed. If something is truly important to us, we never put it off 'til the future because the future may never come. 

Wong's meaning management model also includes a significant spiritual component.  I plan to do more research on meaning management theory; look for it in future blog posts. 

According to Wong, when we live without regrets, we confront death with the same attitude.  We are able to face death with faith and to embrace it "with...courage and an undying hope." 

I am interested in Wong's ideas about how to come to terms with death.  My hope is that his meaning management model might offer a path for me to sort out my own fears; if so, I suspect I will grow as a person in the process.


  1. You might be interested in this book:
    Who Dies?: An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying
    by Stephen and Ondrea Levine
    but a Vipassana course would help with understanding experientially.

  2. Growing as a person? Sounds exhausting! :)

    On our han (a big wood block we bang on to call people to meditation) it says: "Great is the matter of birth and death! Awake! Awake! Do not waste time!"

    I've also heard that to hear the han is to hear the knocking on your own coffin.

    We have a lot of death "poetry" in Soto Zen. Essentially, we're urged to watch everything die, and then also investigate the phenomenon, and, spoiler alert, see that nothing is dying, too.

    Maybe this is why we always dress in black?


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