– Are you afraid? – asked young Caroline to her mother on her deathbed.
– No, I am curious – replied Daisy Fuller, who then smiled and started to tell a hidden story to her daughter: her relationship with a man called Benjamin Button, who was born old and grew younger until he died as a baby. Daisy was relieved telling the story and, in the end, Caroline discovered the fantastic man was her father.
The passage above was extracted from the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher in 2008, which starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as the protagonists. The film is an adaptation of a short story written by the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1921. It tells the story of a man who leads his life in reverse. When Fitzgerald wrote this bizarre story, he was subverting one of the biggest human anguishes: the perception of getting old and the certainty of its epilogue – death.
If we could choose, we would rather see our bodies to get better, and not to inevitably deteriorate in anticipation of death. As we don’t possess this property, all we have left is our imagination, which can get a little help from literature and cinema.
But Benjamin Button is not Connor MacLeod, the Highlander, a unique immortal Scottish warrior born in the 16th century. Benjamin lives an ordinary human lifespan, and shows us that even if we try to hold back time, we cannot beat death. Wise Daisy knows this truth and deals with it with the wisdom of someone who has lived intensively. Thus she’s not afraid, but only curious.
Death is a champion subject in world literature, only perhaps scoring drawn with love. And both are commonly linked, as in Romeo and Juliet, in distinct versions. Possibly, what makes our love for life so immense is the great fear we have for death. But should we avoid life to have the illusion of not dying, like someone who doesn’t want a puppy because of the certainty of suffering when it dies? No, because the mystery of death isn’t bigger than the mystery of life, and one category belongs to the other. Note that to live presuppose to die, and dying means to have lived. They are inseparable. We are facing a unique mystery that, for escaping our understanding and control, anguishes and depresses us.
Epicurus was right when said he didn’t fear death for the simple fact that he would never meet it, as while he’d be alive death wouldn’t be present, and when death would arrive, he would no longer be here. The philosopher’s argument has a perfect logic. The problem is that we don’t face death logically, but emotionally.
As thinking beings we try to rationalise, repeating those truths that in the end bring no consolation: such as ‘To die you only need to be alive’ or ‘As soon as a man is born, he begins to die’. These are Epicurean sentences, all bringing up one truth. But when death is the subject, we’d prefer a lie, the immortality illusion, the deceit of “there’s only life”.
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying”, said Woody Allen, in one of his genius moments. I’m sorry, Woody, but it won’t be possible. What is left for us is to live as if we were not going to die, thinking and glorifying the miracle of life; otherwise we’ll die before dying, as explained Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents. On this work, Freud sets death’s perspective as one of largest sources of human unhappiness. To die before dying means not to live in spite of being alive.
Epicurean logic, Freudian Science, and Woody Allen’s witticism are correct. We are the ones that are mistaken for suffering that which we cannot control. We are used to thinking we are gods, that reason brings us control, that desire is infinite. Suddenly we discover our limitations and we desperate. You and I will die, and that is the ultimate truth of living. Thus let’s face life with humour and gratitude and not miss the opportunity of making this world a better place with our own presence.
Emperor Augustus, dying on his bedstead, asked for a mirror so he could fix his mane before saying to the ones who were assisting him: “If I have played my part well, clap your hands, and dismiss me with applause from the stage.” The Roman was right. To die is to leave the stage, and all we have to do is to accept the play will have an end and that we must play our roles as virtuosi of this fantastical theatre.
Wouldn’t the secret to avoid suffering because of death be to believe that it is only a phase of eternal life?
The secret to mitigate the suffering is indeed to believe in something, as doubt paralyses us. Man is made of reason, emotions and beliefs, being the latter built from the matter that constitutes the first two. Beliefs are created from values and desires, they exist to make our lives better, and those who have beliefs are the only ones who can question them.
Epicurus, for example, anticipated the atomic theory saying that everything is formed by minuscule particles in movement, and he believed that this theory was applicable not only to our bodies, but also souls. He used to say that man and his soul are nothing else but matter in movement, and when this movement is interrupted nothing else is left. This was his belief, which gave him tranquillity even to play with destiny.
Whereas for the Buddhists, death is an illusion, nothing really dies, specially our soul, which is our true essence. What matters is to reach the nirvana, which would be an elevated psychological, loving and free from anxieties state. This state is only achieved through detachment and meditation. In other words, to reach nirvana and become eternal, man needs to build his own nirvana on earth through his own attitudes.
Apparently opposed, Epicureanism and Buddhism have something in common. Both credit all the merit to life as we know it. For Epicureanism this is the only life we have, therefore it deserves to be lived in full; for Buddhism the final spiritual nirvana will only be achieved through the psychological terrestrial nirvana. Both theories propose that we give value to life, making the good and transforming it into something worthy.
Since we cannot pretend death doesn’t exist, all we can do is to create the most comfortable belief. Death is a mystery, so life is. But we have the illusion we can understand life because our sensory organs can perceive it. We measure, think and touch life, but not death. Death is metaphysics, and it is beyond any logical interpretation. We know what the end of life is, but we don’t know what the beginning of death will bring.
As we don’t know, we simply believe. And belief is imagination, not certainty. However its power is irrefutable, capable of using thoughts to calm the emotions down. In the end, this is what matters, to think and to feel alive. There are only two ways to consider death while life exists: to ignore it or be mindful of it. The first is useless, while the second at least brings more cards to the game of life, creating new perspectives.
Death is also present on daily facts, separations, and end of cycles. Shouldn’t we be more used to it?
Three are the factors about death that really scare us: the unknown, which is always frightening; the resistance in abandoning life, which is adjacent to instincts; and the passage, which can be loaded with suffering. As a friend of mine says with his peculiar humour: “I believe that life and death are both good. The problem is the transition.”
Yes, we are used to the idea of death. What we probably won’t get used to is its presence in our lives. We accept death, because we are reasoned, but we will always strongly react to it in two circumstances: when it is premature or when it is close. We don’t like to know that young people die. It doesn’t seem natural. There is a hint of injustice in soldiers who don’t return from the war, in young men and women trapped in their car’s skeleton after nights out, in children with leukaemia in hospitals or starving in miserable countries. We think no one should die without having the chance of living a life. We don’t like death near us, scything our people, taking our grandparents and our parents. This is when death is evil, taking away us from our loved ones, each time reminding us that it will be back for us one day – it is only a matter of time.
At least the majority of us have reasons to be happy for having lived. No matter what was the mystery, the adventure of living is great, notwithstanding the stumbling blocks, of course. It is not possible not to meet suffering. It is inherent to our human condition. And amongst those sufferings is death, sometimes camouflaged, peeping on us.
Faith, Psychology, Philosophy, Literature, Mysticism, they are all prodigal in approaching the theme of death, but none of those shapers of the human thinking ever had the courage to deny two facts: all of us have to deal with death, ours and of others; and that we will inevitably suffer because of it.
It wouldn’t probably be intelligent not to die. Eternal life would be very tiring. But certainly it is not intelligent to die before dying. Ergo a text about death is innocuous, unless it is a clamour to life. To live for real is the only warranty that, when the time comes, we will be curious rather than afraid, just like Daisy Fuller was before dying.
Translation: Melissa Mussak ([email protected])