According to some people mortality robs life of meaning: you will be dead soon, so what you do doesn't matter. For others this very conclusion offers meaning: you have nothing to lose so you are free to take a punt, to make something out of your life. The existential therapist Irvin Yalom wrote that "Although the physicality of death destroys man, the idea of death saves him." He meant that the recognition of death awakens us to the precious wonder of our temporary life. We have nothing to lose, really, by taking a leap, and perhaps we have a lot to gain. But we need to maintain this perspective to maintain this active freedom.
Nobody said life would be easy; the conditions may be unfair and stacked against us. We are only partially free. On the basis of insufficient knowledge and limited ability we must make all important decisions. And yet we are nonetheless responsible for what we do and make of ourselves. If we avoid the cost that comes with committing or taking a leap - anxiety - then we create a life like that of T.S.Eliot's J Alfred Prufrock:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
Do I dare Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all -
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
So how should I presume?
Prufrock might receive a slap in the face for his gamble. Well, he might have received one, except that in order to avoid the risk he chooses never to act. He will never know what might have happened if he ascended the stair. He is living a half-life.
To dare to act in risky conditions requires that we learn to forgive ourselves again and again. People punish themselves zealously for lacking in advance the wisdom of hindsight. We all suffer from what Iris Murdoch called the fat, relentless ego, even when we condemn ourselves. We think that, if I am not very good then I must be very bad; if not very clever, then very stupid. But imagine accepting the truth that I am neither so wonderful nor so terrible but a normal, flawed human being? And that I can create something worthwhile and significant, regardless?
It takes humility to stop punishing ourselves and instead to live some real life in the short time we have. To treat life as a gift, instead of a source of achievement or shame. And thereby to let ourselves discover that mysterious feeling, like a pure gift, that regardless of death, somehow it is all worthwhile.
Author: Matthew Bishop