Now, the 21st century has its own perceptions of death. And one might be best described as a kind of philosophical FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
Contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel points out that some people dread death because they’ll miss out on things that they want to encounter. If you were to die right now, you’d never get to finish the video game you’re in the middle of, or read the next book, or see humans land on Mars. Which would suck, yeah. But think about it like this: cool things were going on way before you were born and you missed that.
I’m gonna make some assumptions about your age here and You didn’t march on the movements of freedom alongside Gandhi. You totally missed the The Women’s Liberation Movement. So, Nagel asks: If you don’t feel some sort of deep sense of loss at what you missed before you were even alive, why should you feel loss at what you’ll miss after you die? Now, Nagel does point out that if we believe that life is fundamentally good, then there is something to grieve for when a life is cut short.
Since humans can live, on average, for about 80 years, someone dying at the age of 20 is a tragedy, because that person missed out on 60 possible years of good times. But we should take a breather here to talk about what you truly value about life, because that will also have an effect on what you think about death in general, or about the death of a specific person.
If you say that life is just always, essentially, good, then you’re said to place a high value on the sanctity of life. It doesn’t matter what the content of that life looks like, or what the person is like. The fact that they’re alive is just wonderful. So, losing it would not be good. But, if you think that quality of life is what’s important, then you’re going to want to distinguish between lives that are full of good experiences, and those that aren’t. If you value, quality of life, you don’t think that there’s something inherently valuable about merely being alive.
So in these terms, some deaths might in fact be optimistic or precious – like, if they bring about an end to a horrible, agonizing existence. It does make sense to be afraid of dying itself, because the process of dying can be terrible and drawn out and involve saying a lot of difficult good-byes. But maybe Socrates and Epicurus have convinced you that fearing your own death is absurd.
Well then what about the death of others? Is it equally stupid to fear the death of the people you love? Probably so, say some philosophers, because what you’re fearing isn’t in reality death; what you’re afraid of is being left behind, alone, when a loved one dies. And this is a good place to hear from ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi. He lived about the same time as Epicurus, and considers that there’s no actual reason to fear the death of your loved ones.
He asked, why would you fear the inescapable? We know that death is going to happen, to everyone, and we also know that it’s a part of the life cycle. And we don’t see any other parts of our life cycle as bad. Wouldn’t it be stupid, he said, if we mourned the loss of our babies when they became toddlers, or our children when they became teens? We celebrate every other life milestone, with birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, and graduations, to mark the passage of time and the changes that have come. Sure, your parents might shed some tears when they pack you off to college, but they also knew that that day was going to come – when you would move away from them and onto your own life. According to Zhuangzi, dath is just one more change – why treat it differently?
He believed that instead of mourning, we should celebrate the death of a loved one just as you celebrated every other life change that they experienced. We should think of their death as a going away party for a grand journey. In his view, mourning can in fact seem selfish. When it’s time for the people you love to move on, Zhuangzi said, the last thing you should do is hold them closer.