By the time you finish reading this book, you could be dead.
It’s not that long a book, but even so, a car accident, a slip and fall, a random crime, a plane crash, a sudden and devastating disease, a heart attack, a brain aneurysm, or any other random lethal misfortune could claim your life before you get to the final page. Or not. The problem is that you don’t know which fate awaits you.
We, perhaps alone among the creatures that inhabit the globe with us, can contemplate our own mortality. We are aware of the basic fact that one day we will cease to exist. We are conscious of the reality of our inevitable deaths, but we don’t know what it all means or what, if anything, lies beyond death.
The Tragic Sense of Life
The Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno wrote that our fears and anxieties around death drove us to try to figure out what would become of us when we die. Would we “die utterly” and cease to exist? That would lead us to despair. Would we live on in some way? That would lead us to become resigned to our fate. But the fact that we can never really know one way or the other leads us to an uncomfortable in-between: a “resigned despair.” 1Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations, 38.
Unamuno refers to this “resigned despair” as “the tragic sense of life.” For Unamuno, this tragic sense of life created a drive to understand the “whys and wherefores” of existence, to understand the causes, but also the purposes, of life. The terror of extinction pushes us to try to make a name for ourselves and to seek glory as the only way to “escape being nothing.” 2Ibid., 64.
There is an additional consequence to our mortality beyond this “resigned despair” and the “tragic sense of life.” Our awareness of our own mortality also creates a great deal of anxiety. Because we know neither the date nor the manner of our own deaths, we are left with unknowing and uncertainty, and are plagued by angst on an existential level.Continue reading