Quotes About Death That Can Teach You How to Live

Quotes About Death That Can Teach You How to Live 1
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Imagine a world without death, in which departure is refused, and so everything remains eternal, with nothing fresh permitted to emerge. The living have absolute control over the entry gates of existence, resolutely shut under lock and key, to prevent something new coming along to displace them, or eat them, or whatever it is that the unpredictable unborn might do. The jostle for existence has been halted; the dance of life arrested, its tune silenced so that the living can exist in perpetuity, bereft of competition, having made themselves elves on earth.

The streets are filled with the same old faces, same old names, same old fancies. When the light departs they sip single-malt whiskey with bartenders named Walt or Joey or Jim, who don’t have children. Nobody has children. There’s no brightly-painted playgrounds or baby blue cots; no toddlers on bikes or awkward fumbling teenagers. The creatures on earth have existed since time immemorial, like a captured snapshot, or a stagnant, tepid pool, never at risk of being refreshed by a generation new.

“Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.”

 Alan Watts

Such a world would be tragically dull. Even the most lustrous songbird, warbling its beautiful tune on a crisp Sunday morning, becomes boring after a while. For life to create something new and unique, death must first clear the way. Paradoxically, to refuse death is to refuse life. Change is a requirement of an exciting universe.

“Death is the dropping of the flower, that the fruit may swell.”

Henry Ward Beecher

Death is not a problem to be solved, but a driving force of dynamicity, unreservedly and unapologetically cranking the wheel of change, making way for a delicate yellow-spotted butterfly, a row of scarlett-tipped roses, or a soaring snow-capped mountain. Such beauty wouldn’t exist without the destructive force of death.

“Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”

 John Muir

Our awareness of the delicate evanescence of life makes us grateful for it. To know that soon enough, every living thing that you encounter will be dead, is to make them all the more precious and special, to be revered with shining eyes. Loss is a lens that relieves our shortsightedness, and brings into sharp focus every transitory little thing that begs to be appreciated, before it’s too late. Everything exists just once in a lifetime, never to be witnessed again, its beauty derived from its impermanence. Death is the old friend who taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that soon enough, everything before you will be annihilated, while wearing a t-shirt with the words “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

“Mostly it is loss that teaches us about the worth of things”

  Arthur Schopenhauer

“By becoming deeply aware of our mortality, we intensify our experience of every aspect of life.”

 Robert Greene

“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.”

 Emily Dickinson

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

 Edgar Allan Poe

Without contrast, we cannot appreciate. One can only imagine the joy a Norwegian living in Svalbard might feel when witnessing the sun peek over the glistening mountains for the first time in six months, or the lip-smacking splendour of an ice-cold beer after completing Dry July. Much that we favour is only possible through the unfavourable. By stamping out death, we must also stamp out life.

“What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?”

 Glenn Ringtved

Breaking us down to our constituent parts, those less-than-specklike atoms that constantly come and go, it becomes clear that our physical essence is transitory, and that the notion of being the same as we were yesterday is nothing but the inability to feel our atoms departing. Who knows where they’ll end up? The toenail of a mischievous spidermonkey, leaping through the Brazilian Amazon; the lungs of the mighty blue whale, cruising through the chilly depths of the Atlantic; or perhaps in the fist of an enraged white nationalist, who plunges it into the cheek of a penniless immigrant. You have no say in the matter. Your atoms connect you to the entire universe, and guarantee your eternity whether you like it or not—atomically subordinate to the never ending cycle of life and death.

“You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”

 Philip Pullman

“I shall not wholly die, and a great part of me will escape the grave.”

Horace

“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”

 Thomas Moore

What is death but a return to the state of pre-birth? A time without pain, botherance, or exertion; when your atoms were splayed across the far reaches of the universe, not yet you, but destined to be so. Though we may picture non-existence as an interminable, torturous blackness, perhaps akin to being buried alive for eternity, we can never comprehend its genuine experience, because one experiences something by being consciously alive. The dead cannot comment on being dead, having been deprived of the ability at the moment of their demise. The sense of dread that we may feel in relation to death is vanquished, made null and void by the nature of our changing universe, as it fashions something fresh and remarkable to take our place. Death is the easiest thing that we’ll ever have to do—it’s all taken care of, after all.

Not a person on earth can teach you how to die, because no-one who died ever lived to tell the tale.

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Mark Twain

“Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?”

 Epicurus

“I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.”

 Joseph Conrad

Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”

 John Updike

“If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”

 Montaigne

The most biting tragedy of all is allowing death to dull our spark; to restrain us with a short leash, trapping us in a life of grey mediocrity—safe, but colourless, like the frightened young mother who locks her son inside and smothers him with love, cutting off his oxygen, and ensuring a life of retardation. Courage and risk are ingredients of a well-lived life: to put one’s best foot forward with a spirit of adventure, despite the danger. When these things are absent, we exist as frightened spectres, lacking in true substance and already half-dead. Every waking moment carries a choice: affirmation of life, filled with courageous deeds of dedicated participation, or negation, whereby we recoil into our cowardly shells, barely able to peek out at the madness of our unforgiving universe, lest it tramples us into oblivion.

“Death is nothing, but to live defeated is to die every day.”

 Napoleon Bonaparte

“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

 William Saroyan

“A man with outward courage dares to die; a man with inner courage dares to live.”

 Lao Tzu

“I don’t want to die without any scars.”

 Chuck Palahniuk

“Whatever you want to do, do it now. There are only so many tomorrows.”

 Michael Landon

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

 Mark Twain

Though we spend much of our lives jostling for position, mercilessly chained to our desks in an attempt to climb the ladder of recognition, Death sweeps away the hustle and grind as if it were just another dusty doorstep to be cleaned—as inconsequential as a grain of sand, worn down from the body of a miniscule sea creature. Status isn’t in Death’s vocabulary. Why must it be in ours?

“Death makes equal the high and low.”

 John Heywood

“You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.”

 Anton Chekhov

“Everything is ridiculous if one thinks of death.”

 Thomas Bernhard

“The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.”

 Seneca

Above all else, death can help us to illuminate the one thing that we all desperately crave and need, something that motivates us beyond measure, pushing us onwards despite the reality of our nihilistic universe: meaning. The ultimate gift from Death, purchased, packaged, and decorated with a silk ribbon, is to encourage us to find something to live for. When we figure out what’s personally meaningful to us, we discover the very reason that we’re alive.

“No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.”

Martin Luther King Jr

Life is easier if you embrace change

greg-rakozy-38802-unsplashPhoto by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Our universe has an insatiable tendency to change. Since the moment of its spectacular inception, in which a singularity of unfathomable density and temperature exploded with the strength of a million gods, the cosmos has undergone endless, beautiful revision.

The formation of subatomic particles – the tiniest specks known to us – went on to form larger atoms, raging stars, colossal planets, and expansive, glittering galaxies, all vacillating from one state to another, without purpose or need for reason. The horizon-spanning landmasses that support our species are constantly shifting back and forth, forging snow-laden mountains that soar into the luminous sky, or deep subterranean trenches that lay forever hidden in the impenetrable darkness. 99 percent of the species to have existed on planet Earth – over 5 billion unique groups – have found themselves extinct, subject to the relentlessly changing nature of our universe, in which each organism plays their short role before relinquishing their atoms to another venture.

The entire universe is, and always has been, in a state of flux. If the cosmos were a sentient being, one might assume that it behaves this way in order to keep things interesting. After all, nothing induces boredom quicker than a stale, changeless situation, lacking freshness and surprise. Variety is what makes our planet so intoxicating, and yet, as a species we have a foolish, unremitting desire to cling onto positive experiences, in an attempt to prevent their escape. We wail and squirm when a period of delight transforms into mediocrity, as if the cosmos will heed our complaints and alter its immutable proclivity for change. We frantically try to grasp onto every morsel of happiness that befalls us, praying that our kitten-like grip will somehow hold on, but failing every single time. We revolt against the inevitably of change, and it makes us depressed.

Two religions of the mysterious East – Buddhism and Taoism – can help us with this problem. Alan Watts – an influential figure who helped popularise Eastern philosophy in the West – called Buddhism the religion of no religion, due to its non-dogmatic, practical, and philosophical nature. Taoism has similar qualities. You won’t find a single prayer-receiving god in Buddhism or Taoism.

Buddhists believe that personal suffering is caused by our implacable tendency to become attached to what we desire, whether it be a pleasant emotion, removal of death, freedom from pain, or anything else that we crave. Surrendering our attachments leads to Nirvana, a state of blissful peace and liberation. When you consider the flux-like, constantly changing nature of the universe, this makes a hell of a lot of sense. It’s impossible to become attached to anything because it’ll soon change into something else, and by foolishly trying to lengthen the experience by clinging onto it – as though our grasping will prevent its transformation – we’re condemning ourselves to disappointment.

What is required is an unrelenting acceptance of our universe’s fluidity, in which we must enthusiastically immerse ourselves. We can no longer live under the foolish assumption that we can trap our positive experiences in a large jar and climb in with them whenever we’re feeling blue. Agreeable situations will emerge, be enjoyed, and then naturally transform into something else. We suffer needlessly because we revolt against the universe’s love of change.

“Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.” — Alan Watts

“If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.”
― Lao Tzu

Life is transition – you can’t pause the show and fix things into place, however much you’d like to. Things come and go naturally – resisting this fact pollutes our souls with misery.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” —Alan Watts

Our existence can be considered a glorious, dynamic adventure, brimming with experiences both light and dark, and constantly exciting. We make our way through a chapter and look back over our exploits, perhaps with a tinge of regret that things have to change, until we’re ready to move onto something provocatively brand new.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” — Jack Kerouac

The ultimate change that we resist is our own death. We desperately want to step outside the confines of our changing universe, so that we may dodge its brutal laws and become eternal gods. Our capacity for memory and prediction allow us to delve into the past and future, which are incredible tools for survival, but curse us with the desire to live everlastingly. Before we developed these skills, the only thing that existed for us was this moment. We had no concept of eternity, nor any desire to become acquainted with it. We were free to live in the forever changing now – a perfectly mindful existence. Mental time-hopping may have helped to escalate our species to the top of the food chain, but it’s instilled a debilitating fear of our eventual demise. Funnily enough, most of us have already died many times over. Our cells are constantly croaking and being replaced anew, including the parts of ourselves that we personally identify with – our consciousness-creating brain cells.

“It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.” — Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Memory cleverly pulls the wool over our eyes, creating an ongoing impression of your own identity. But on an atomic level, you are not the same person that you were when you started reading this article.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus

The atoms that make up our bodies are so copious, durable and replaceable that there’s a good chance of us containing a little bit of past genius:

“Atoms, in short, are very abundant. They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms– up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested– probably once belonged to Shakespeare.”
― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

On an atomic level, we’re all eternal – the atoms that make up our bodies will eventually depart, to become part of a chunky brown baobab tree on the plains of Africa, a humble poo-pushing dung beetle, or perhaps a future tyrannical politician. Though our consciousness expires, we survive. Humans are simply an insignificant expression of our ferociously dynamic universe; a cosmos that shakes and jives, splattering atoms across the face of gleaming galaxies, mixing and merging until something chimp-like emerges.

Change and variation is what makes our world endlessly breathtaking, and by realising that life would become monotonously stagnant without it, we can start to come to terms with our long and imperfect journey. Fear, sorrow and desperation are equally as important as courage, joy and contentment. Without death, we cannot hope to experience an exhilarating, spirited life. Change is what paints the world with luminous, spine-tingling colour; the dark hues are what make the light so gorgeously prevalent. All we need to do is take a deep breath, and plunge into it.

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

YES – the ultimate weapon in life

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Why live, if we’re going to die?

This was a key question for Albert Camus, a handsome, Nobel Prize winning French philosopher. Camus believed that death steals the meaning from life – what’s the point of living if all that awaits us is a cold, worm-infested grave? God is dead, and an eternal afterlife is longer a possibility. Without religion to save us, how can we live with the pointlessness of existence, with the absurdity of it all?

Lyrical and Critical Essays is a volume of essays in which Camus explores this fundamental question, shedding further light on the ideas expressed in his novels.

While travelling in Italy in 1937, the following reflection encapsulates the problem that Camus was wrestling with:

“Italy, like other privileged places, offers me the spectacle of a beauty in which, nonetheless, men die.” — The Desert

What is the point in such beauty existing, and for us to experience that beauty, if it’s destined to be forever lost? How can we muster the strength to go on in the face of our inevitable death? Camus experienced undeniable natural beauty, but bristled with anguish at its meaninglessness. Things happen, we experience them, and then we die. Metaphysical significance cannot be found in anything.

“The air grows cool. A foghorn sounds at sea. The beams from the lighthouse begin to turn: one green, one red, and one white. And still the world sighs its long sigh.” — Between Yes and No

We’re on a perpetual merry-go-round, with the same tired tune from the same tired speakers, crushing us into relentless anguish and despair.

“His fever sings. He walks a little faster; tomorrow everything will be different, tomorrow. Suddenly he realizes that tomorrow will be the same, and, after tomorrow, all the other days. And he is crushed by this irreparable discovery. It’s ideas like this that kill one.” – Irony

Camus found his answer to the meaninglessness of life in a tenacious, immutable acceptance of our sorry condition. We’re going to die, and there’s nothing we can do to change that, so rather than wallowing in anguish at our situation, why not just accept it? This acceptance is a form of rebellion against the merciless impotency of existence — I’m going to die, but fuck you, I’ll accept it nonetheless.

“At this extreme point of acute awareness everything came together, and my life seemed a solid block to be accepted or rejected. I needed a grandeur. I found it in the confrontation between my deep despair and the secret indifference of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.” – Death In The Soul

The battle between Camus’ despair of the futility of life, and the indifference of the world, amounts to a decision between acceptance or rejection. Between living fully, or throwing your hands up and committing suicide.

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” – The Myth of Sisyphus

Why live, if we’re going to die?

Affirming every aspect of our lives won’t necessarily lessen our despair, but we shouldn’t want to lessen our despair, because this is also a part of life to be accepted. Fantasising of another life is a tragedy – our own can be dazzling with the right perspective.

“For if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for another life and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have.” – Summer in Algiers

“I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition.” – Nuptials at Tipasa

One cannot remove the negative from life without also removing the positive. The negative can only be identified because of the existence of positive. Take away despair, and you must also remove its natural contrast: joy.

“There is no love of life without despair of life.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

“But if we give up a part of what exists, we must ourselves give up being; we must then give up living or loving except by proxy. Thus there is a will to live without refusing anything life offers: the virtue I honor most in this world.” – Return to Tipasa

“In the difficult times we face, what more can I hope for than the power to exclude nothing and to learn to weave from strands of black and white one rope tautened to the breaking point?” – Return to Tipasa

There’s nothing for it but an unbridled acceptance of everything that happens to us, and by existing in this way, we’re rebelling against the absurdity of our human condition. Shunning the world does nothing to alter its uncompromising indifference; only affirmation can provide us with the determination to continue living.

“If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver. Let those who wish to turn their backs upon the world. I have nothing to complain of, since I can see myself being born.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

Camus found unending solace in natural beauty, and the sensual abilities that allow us to receive the world. Awareness of every spectacular triviality was enough for him, despite their lack of meaning. Simply experiencing the world was the point.

“What counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world? My cup brims over before I have time to desire. Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

“Millions of eyes, I knew, had gazed at this landscape, and for me it was like the first smile of the sky. It took me out of myself in the deepest sense of the word. It assured me that but for my love and the wondrous cry of these stones, there was no meaning in anything. The world is beautiful, and outside it there is no salvation.” – The Desert

“How many hours have I spent crushing absinthe leaves, caressing ruins, trying to match my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs! Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.” – Nuptials at Tipasa

Only by living honestly, by accepting our absurd condition completely and without restraint, can we expel the terror of our impending doom. Our efforts should be placed on the body, in our ability to perceive and appreciate the awesome wonder all around us. Only there can meaning be found. Bitter, often uncomfortable, but meaning nonetheless.

“The immortality of the soul, it is true, engrosses many noble minds. But this is because they reject the body, the only truth that is given them, before using up its strength. For the body presents no problems, or, at least, they know the only solution it proposes: a truth which must perish and which thus acquires a bitterness and nobility they dare not contemplate directly.” – The Desert

“It is not surprising that the sensual riches this country offers so profusely to the sensitive person should coincide with the most extreme deprivation. There is no truth that does not also carry bitterness.” – Summer in Algiers

What we need most of all is the fearlessness to accept everything that comes our way, good or bad. We must positively affirm every experience – open our arms to receive it, and be consequent rebels.

“The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

“There are some people who prefer to look their destiny straight in the eye.” – Between Yes and No

Why live, if we’re going to die? Because life can be spectacular with the right attitude. We’ll experience everything that is thrown at us — joy, agony, depression, hope, lust, love, ambivalence — and by accepting all of it, we’re rebelling valiantly against the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence. Only through acceptance can we truly be free.