Facing death-4: Death as a liberating idea

I find that directly facing the fact of one’s eventual death to be extraordinarily liberating. It makes one realize that life is precious and should not be wasted. It does not matter at all how much money or possessions you have when you die. Now that my own children are grown and educated and no longer dependent on me, there seems to be no point at all in accumulating more wealth or possessions. In fact, the opposite is the case, I have consciously started reducing the amount of things I own. I try not to buy anything that I don’t really need or that does not serve some fairly direct purpose. My main indulgence is books which I still continue to buy.

The only thing that matters (at least according to my philosophy of life) is whether you leave the world a better place for having been there. It is not easy to reassure oneself that this is true, since we can delude ourselves so easily about our own worth. We use up a lot of the Earth’s resources in the course of living a full life. What have we given back in return for this generosity from nature?

One benefit about getting older is that one doesn’t give a damn about many things about which one worried a lot about when younger. You don’t worry so much about trying to impress the people you meet. You worry a lot less about clothes and fashion and what people think of you or your ideas, so you are freer to say what you think and do what you really want to. It is not that I have become a total slob or am oblivious to those around me. I try to be as considerate as I can to others but the circle of people whose approval matters strongly has shrunk sharply to those who are close to me, and the approval of those outside that circle matters less and less as time goes by. Seeking some vague generalized approval seems pointless.

If you are lucky in life, you will have developed a few close friends that you can depend on and with whom you share your life. If you are lucky, you will have worked at something that gave you a lot of satisfaction.

In the Hindu philosophy of life, this attitude to one’s last stage of life, where one deliberately lets go of all the attachments one has to worldly things, is carried to the extreme and one becomes a sannyasi, where one leaves behind everything, family, friends, and all possessions, and seeks personal enlightenment as a itinerant mendicant, dependent solely on the kindness and charity of strangers for one’s needs. I am not going to do that. That life has a certain kind of romantic appeal but also strikes me as somewhat self-indulgent in an ascetic kind of way. Its roots lie in the belief that one has some kind of immortal soul that one must prepare for the next life or for life after death. Since I do not believe I have anything that will survive me, such a goal seems pointless. The good thing about it is the attitude that material possessions become increasingly irrelevant as one approaches death.

The goal of enlightenment for its own sake also does not appeal to me. What is the point of my being enlightened unless I can use that knowledge to improve the world? I do not seek enlightenment but I do seek knowledge. My thirst for learning about the world has grown even greater with the realization that the time left for learning is short. For example, I am now much more choosy about what I read, what films I watch, and how I otherwise spend my time, though I am not obsessive about filling up my time with activities.

One obvious question is why bother to learn more things when that knowledge will die with you? We all die and all our possessions will also decay and decompose. Nothing physical or tangible is really permanent. The only things that last for a long time are ideas. Because unlike material possessions, knowledge does not really die. Apart from the pure pleasure that learning brings, knowledge is the only lasting thing we leave for succeeding generations and my goal is to learn as much as possible, understand as much as possible, and share that knowledge and understanding with others, so that they may build on it and pass it on to others.

Knowledge is the only legacy worth leaving.


  1. Thud says

    It may not matter much to you, but I approve of your action, what I know of them, generally speaking.
    I am fortunate that you have established this handy vehicle here for disseminated jewels of wisdom and insight, and links to outsider points of view on our cultures shortsightedness and delusions.
    I hope this encourages you to keep it going, so long as it’s productive and workable for you. I’m still groping fow ways to share my few insights.
    Thanks. Good luck and happiness to you.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano, my attitude to knowledge is more selfish than yours. If something I learn can benefit others, that’s great, and I’m happy sharing, but that thought plays no role in my process. It’s an end in itself, and “why bother to learn more things when that knowledge will die with you?” is, to me, a meaningless question. It’s like asking “why bother drinking The Macallan when the memory of the taste will die with you?”.

    As for leaving the world a better place, the best most of us can hope for at this point is doing as little damage as possible.

  3. DJ says

    This is a sort of comfort, but for my part I can’t really get emotionally behind this notion. To answer Davy Jones’ question, I fear death. I know this because if someone were to put a gun to my head, I’d take steps to avoid death. Ultimately, that’s all the proof one needs to know they fear death, an open an honest assessment of their own reaction to it. Not in the vague “eventually I’ll die in some unspecified way at some unspecified time” sense, but in the real, in your face, “you WILL die right here and right now by this method” reality.

    Maybe something psychological changes when you have had kids. I have never had kids, nor do I predict I ever will (this is a more assured prediction than for most for reasons I won’t go into, excepting PERHAPS a decision to adopt). For me, death doesn’t come with the assurance that some genetic or memetic part of me goes on into the future. The job I have is also too insignificant to have any real effect on the scenetic nature of the world stage, so that’s ruled out.

    While I’m liberated from any sense of duty towards setting up a nice afterlife for myself, I still fear death as the cessation of everything I’ve ever dreamed of. My dreams and aspirations die with me, so I need to keep living. I know that’s selfish of me, but if some means of life extension becomes possible in the future, I will take advantage of it. I’ll view anyone who moves to outlaw such a thing as a murderer as well (perhaps anyone who extends their life needs to give up reproductive capability as a tradeoff). I don’t know, it’s complicated. As much as I’d like to say death is no big deal, the reality is most people do think it’s a huge deal (at least I do), or murdering someone with no family that would miss them in their sleep wouldn’t be considered wrong. How can we consider natural death to be “okay” and death caused by someone else’s hand not to be? I can’t resolve that.

  4. A Simpatico says

    There is a terrific article on an accumulator of vinyl records at the NY Times website, in the Sunday Magazine. This article helped me articulate a pattern in human behavior.
    In the scheme of things, the one certainty is that no one will remember you, after enough time has passed. No one. Come the apocalypse, even Caesar will become unimportant. The future of our evolving social cohesion is the only thing we should focus on. But we are all a collection of our pasts, aren’t we? It feels non-human to not remember. We are trapped by the physical limitations of our brains, where one’s identity is composed of fragments from the past. This collector has merely gone an order of magnitude more than most of us can manage. The advice from the comments is to take these bits of frozen memory and store them in a globally accessible icebox. The irony is LP’s are a means to freeze an actual musical performance. The amber is cherished more than the insect’s flight.
    Humans are so afraid of death. More even than pain, it seems. The underlying fear of loss is what makes someone hold on to things, whether it is memory, objects or money. The greatly wealthy are no different: they are padding their lives to ensure their family, their work, their life is not forgotten. Religions start like this.

  5. Lady Scientist says

    Fantastic post. Even though I’m a good bit younger than you (and hoping to have children with my husband soon), I feel the same as you, with regard to material possessions and how time is best spent, as well as making a positive contribution to the world. Really, I want to “collect” memories and share ideas/thoughts with those who will appreciate them. I went to an exhibit about the culture and art of Canadian West Coast indigenous peoples a few years ago and fell in love with one tribe’s perspective: that wealth was not calculated by individuals’ material possessions, but rather by stories that individuals could tell.

  6. kraut says

    You are correct on almost all points. Regarding leaving the world a better place? -- I am satisfied that I did every job I had undertaken to the satisfaction of those I served -- maybe not all of the time, but most of it when I read the feedback properly. I am satisfied I raised my kids to become self sufficient adults. I am satisfied that after 40 years of marriage I still have an excellent -- even better than before -- relationship with my wife.
    As to the wider political impact of my life -- screw them all. There is little that one can do in a society where the wealth and subsequently real power is concentrated in very few hands.
    As to self indulgent? I plan to spent the rest of my life on an small island somewhere in the Atlantic, and I really don’t care if i am self indulgent or not. I have to live my own life with my wife, hopefully together to the last, I have paid my dues to society, am not rich and never cared much for possessions -- only those that support activities I feel passionate about, be it job related (tools) hunting, fishing or reading.
    I refuse to further be included in a body politics that seems hellbent on destruction, be it environmentally or through power politics.
    My goal is to survive with my partner to the end, continue to learn about science (the human condition is fucked up anyway, that is why i completely stopped reading any literature), live as painlessly as possible and end it if necessary.

  7. Heidi Nemeth says

    Senile dementia makes old people irrational. Irrational and incapable of making wise, informed, thought-out, and prompt decisions. Much as we (relative youngsters) who are still rational talk about extending our lives or ending our lives in our dotage, the reality is that current law (in Ohio, at least) says anyone who can still put together a sentence gets to have a say in what happens to themselves. Often people can form sentences long after their ability to reason is all but gone. Without reason, the basal instinct of survival asserts itself. So we keep old people alive, per their expressed wishes.

    Soon, when we baby boomers have to be supported in our dotage, the younger generations will likely find us too burdensome. Using their excellent rational powers, they will make the wise, informed, thought-out, and prompt decision that allowing demented seniors to die a natural death is both necessary and expedient.

    We won’t have the mental capacity to contest their decision.

  8. mnb0 says

    @DJ: actually I have had a gun pointed at me. I did not feel fear at all. Indeed I took some steps to avoid death -- with success, as you’ll have noticed -- but that was because I had a lot of positive expectations. I still have.

  9. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    On a very practical point, have you considered what happens to your blog posts after you die?

    In my hometown a very knowledgeable and articulate local academic and historian recorded much of his thoughts and observations on events that shaped the community. His blog was a treasure trove.

    Then he died, as we all do, but no one had thought to pay the fees to keep the blog alive and all of his online writing was lost.

    I am presently investigating how I can get both Have Coffee Will Write and The Writing On The Wal safely stored in a usable format off line. I already do weekly data base backups, but those backups are only useful for restoring the online presence and not practical for other usages.

    For me, our blogs are like the diaries of previous centuries. While we are not important in the larger sense, what we write and what we choose to comment on does reflect a reality in our time that some future historians might find useful from a perspective that we do not now understand.

    Do all you can to make today a better (and tomorrow even better) day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  10. Mano Singham says

    Jeff @#10,

    Actually, I had not thought about the future of these posts. Right now it is hosted by FtB and does not cost me anything but I don’t know what policy there is about deceased bloggers. I’ll check.

    There is the more general problem of storing digital content for long periods since the format may change and one needs to convert to new formats to be readable. Who would bother to do that?

  11. hyphenman says


    Actually, I’m looking at going analog, printing out both blogs in book form at some point.

    As to the question of conversion, that is a huge concern.

    In 1999 the Smithsonian began a project to digitize all it had from the 20th century. I don’t know how well they did, but I know that they had to dig up a lot of very old machinery to play and convert data from dozens of formats.

    I also had an old associate who collected every computer data storage device and reader he could. He eventually came to be quite valuable to the corporate world because he was the only one who was able to read a lot of old data. Imagine something as simple as reading an 8″ floppy (I have a few from my early programming days) or even a computer paper tape.


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