Inspired by this post by Vincent at A Wayfarer's Notes, I reproduce in their (probably overlong and largely obvious) entirety a few thoughts I had some time ago when thinking about the same subject as the book of Ernest Becker that he comments on- how we deal with the knowledge of our own mortality:
a) There are those who are barely aware of their own existence
b) There are those who are not able to understand death
c) There are those who live as much as possible in the detail of the moment
d) There are those who fill their time with things to which they give importance, and impose that feeling on others.
e) There are those who seek immortality through their children or their fame.
f) There are those who fear death.
g) There are those who embrace death.
h) There are those who talk all the time, or watch the television.
i) There are those who think they will be remembered, and try to be satisfied with this.
j) There are those who believe they have done what they were meant to do with their life.
k) There are those who fill their lives with the products of reason, using the time that they have.
l) There are those believe they will earn immortality after death.
a) Some people do not have the problem of mortality because there are scarcely aware of it. The young, the very stupid, the totally uneducated. They are aware only of the present, and probably have no ability to conceive their own non-existence. The instinct for self-preservation is there, but conscious thought is very limited, to immediate needs and desires, and they have no need otherwise to occupy their minds.
b) Some people are of such limited intelligence that they cannot understand the concept of death, because, living, they cannot conceive of not living. They may fear hurt, which is within their experience, but not death itself, and they therefore have no need to deal with it. This is a very special case of a), which is concerned with people who, able to reason, at least in some measure, do not do so sufficiently even to be fully aware of their own existence as thinking beings.
c) Some people concentrate their minds on the little things of the moment, and give their efforts to them and think that this is what matters. Thus they do not have to think of the bigger things. These things are always minor. Often they cannot understand anything on a larger scale. They have a problem with life as well as with death.
d) Some seek things to do constantly, within the scope of their own competence, so as to be always busy with things that they choose to believe are important, such as housework, work itself, club activities; broadly speaking, all those things which ‘must be done.’ These differ from c) in that they have a wider vision and are capable of organising themselves and others, but because of this they impose themselves on others. But all they are doing is inventing ways to kill time, and are wasting their lives.
e) Some actively seek to leave a legacy by which they will be remembered. Or getting their children to do it This usually means seeking fame, getting written about, a monument erected, and hoping it will not die before you do. Those who are moved to seek fame usually find this easy to believe.
f) Some fear death. That is they are not able to use the means most people use to avoid the direct contemplation of it. They can often do nothing useful nor interesting, nor can ignore it nor accept it, nor pass time painlessly in any way. Their life is a continuous, desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable. Such people do not truly live, but in this they are not alone.
g) Some seek death, directly, by suicide, or indirectly through dangerous activities. Suicides, of course, act through fear of life, not love of death. Others renounce life by giving it no importance, joining dangerous professions, engaging in dangerous sports and activities, defeating their fear by challenging it and, ultimately, attempting to know death and despise it, even, perhaps, to love it. The saints have desired to die and to be with God, and others are prepared to die, or are even desirous of dying, in the name of some belief, principle or position. It is another way of confronting death by finding something to which they can give greater value than life. Perhaps these are separate groups, since many are moved by courage to do what they think is right, rather than seeking courage by doing them. These are not, I think, the same thing. There may be three groups here
h) Some try to fill their lives with entertainment. Unlike d) they do not pretend that their activities are important. They consume sensorial input in a passive fashion, without thought or consequence. These are the ones who spend much of their lives watching television, sleeping or having long conversations about nothing, full of gossip, criticism, remembrance of other occasions on which they have sat around talking about nothing… Anything will do that makes time pass painlessly. These wish to approach death without even noticing they are moving. And there are many of them.
i) Some achieve acceptance by a more passive means than e) or j), by coming to believe that they will be remembered at least by their family and friends by neighbours, people they might have helped, and so they can believe that they will continue to live in the minds of people around them. How little they know human nature.
j) Some are able to believe that their existence has a purpose, that they have discovered it and can carry it out, and that, then, they will be able to accept the end of life. These purposes are very varied, and include raising children, achieving some position in a profession, performing some symbolic personal act (defeating a fear, righting a wrong, visiting somewhere, doing something difficult…) These people are able to believe that what they do matters to others, and will still matter when they are dead.
k) Some attempt to fill their time with reason and the products of reason. Not idle contemplation of art or thought, which comes under d) or more commonly h), but active study and understanding of anything which comes within the scope of reason. Art and learning are the main areas. Since man is both rational and mortal, these people see the best way of living, of being human, as using the time they have as efficiently as possible, and using it for the things which should matter to rational creatures. True learning is understood and aspired to by few, and is very hard to achieve. Most are not interested in it. Even the educated, and those who teach others, including at the highest levels, rarely have any real interest in reason and learning. There are many academics who churn out ideas of varying value and originality, but genuine scholars are very, very few indeed. And they are often unappreciated or even despised by their more pedestrian and self-obsessed colleagues.
l) Some use religious faith as a means of dispensing with the need to value life, or to allow themselves to imagine that they will, if they suffer in life, be rewarded with a much better existence when they die. An afterlife is perhaps the most widespread motif in all human culture, being practically universal, it would appear. It is an inevitable practice of reason to invent untestable beliefs that satisfy it that it will avoid extinction. For the individual, however, belief in a form of immortality is not an especially efficient way of accepting death. This is clear from the fact, as expressed above interrogatively, that few people indeed lose their fear of death through a professed belief in an afterlife. Those who believe heaven is a wonderful place show a great reluctance to go there. It is, therefore, a palliative, a preparation, to reduce their horror of the moment when they contemplate it and when it eventually comes. This apparent contradiction, apparent only since the belief is not usually what it claims to be, is recognised and accepted culturally: we consider mad any man who seeks death by suicide or extreme recklessness for the sole purpose of being with God. (The motives of the recent Muslim suicide bombers are doubtless very complex, but bravado and a deep-seated hatred are surely much more immediate motivations than the belief that they will go to paradise.)