My eight year old daughter will occasionally come downstairs in the evenings, unable to sleep because, as she puts it, she “can’t stop thinking about dying”.
When this happens we hold her, we talk, we dry her tears. We reflect on what an amazing mystery life is and how no one really knows for sure what happens after a person dies. We talk about different theories: the possibility of heaven, beliefs about reincarnation, the idea of simply going to sleep. We sometimes even consider whether we might end up back in the place that we were before we were born. Wherever that is.
As her mother I obviously want to take away this pain and this anxiety she has. I want to soothe her fears and tell her I’ve got her back and that I can make it okay.
And yet I know that there’s little I can really do. This awareness of her own mortality is completely natural and simply a part of being a living, breathing human being. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from other animals, this awareness of ourselves as mortal beings with finite lives.
This is not a new concern for her. It’s something she has been very aware of from the age of four and these evening episodes of preoccupation with death are a fairly regular occurrence in our house.
It seems these existential anxieties are simply a part of her personality and unlikely to go away because the facts of life don’t look like they are going to be changing any time soon. But as she gets older I hope that she will learn to recognise that having these thoughts about dying need not be thought of as completely unhelpful.
What I hope for her is that she can turn these thoughts and her anxiety about dying into an appreciation that she is alive at all. Being aware of our mortality is in some ways a blessing for us humans.
Knowing that her life will one day end I hope will motivate her to make the most of the time that she has. After all, if we had no ability to conceive of our life one day ending, would we not be more likely to waste what precious time we have, even more than we already do.
Being self-aware and mindful of our mortality is an absolutely fundamental part of living a meaningful life. It’s what drives us on to set ourselves goals and to achieve them.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that human beings, the only species capable of conceiving of their own mortality, is the species that has above all others pushed itself to its limits and achieved so much: building pyramids, launching rockets into space, finding cures for diseases, climbing to the tops of mountains and diving down into the depths of the oceans.
Meaning happens within a context and a time-frame. A book or a film with no ending would be meaningless (and ultimately rather tedious).
And so it is with us too. Our lives had beginnings. And so they must also have endings. Grasping and accepting this is a fundamental challenge for human beings and a cornerstone of a more meaningful life.