Jonathan Iwry | Reflections on the mortal coil

The Quaking Point | We’ve all been sentenced to living with death — what matters is the story those sentences tell

· February 18, 2014, 6:54 pm   ·  Updated February 18, 2014, 11:04 pm

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M ic hel de Montai gne once wrote that to philosophize is to learn how to die. That’s easy enough to say - as a philosophy major, I have spent many a term paper trying to solve some of the most intransigent questions ever asked. Death is not an unfamiliar topic.

Nonetheless, no matter how often we read, write and split hairs about it, we’re rarely prepared for reality when it hits us. A lot of time is spent tinkering with abstract problems, like whether things are real and how we can be sure of anything, and it’s easy to forget how quickly such minutiae fall away. When we lose members of our community, we’re forced to lift our heads from our textbooks and arguments. The pain of loss, sadly, is all too real.

The many student deaths of weeks past are a fresh wound to the Penn community. Something feels damaged - perhaps it’s our morale, or perhaps our confidence in the establishment that holds us together.

The knowledge that our peers have passed is disturbing, especially on a college campus. It pierces the comfortable illusion of unbound freedom, reminding us that, despite our youth, we don’t have forever. It’s the universal taboo, the period at the end of a 70 to 90-year sentence. One day, that sentence will conclude.

Parents guard their children from death, and understandably so - growing up happy requires a little shelter, at least at first, from the bitter facts. But we’re not children anymore - I and many of my peers have only a few months left before we graduate. We’re finally coming into our own in the world. We’re independent. We’re deeply unsettled. It’s time to talk about mortality.

Last fall, philosopher Samuel Scheffler published a column in The New York Times about being confronted with death. For Scheffler, the pain of knowing that our lives will eventually end should be eased by the knowledge that others will live on in our stead, carrying our legacies with them. A moving thought, no doubt, but that can’t be all there is to it. Think of how many people, forced to watch their close ones perish, are sentenced to live. Dying is one thing - how do we live with death?

News of death reminds us of how challenging it is to persevere in a world so flawed and overwhelming. The loss of friends - whether by accident or by suicide, whether they took their own lives or lost them to brute misfortune - makes life lonelier and harder to live. It makes us wonder whether there really is any meaning to be found.

In the void of uncertainty, however, we are left with a choice. Our finitude can either hold us back or propel us forward. We can’t account for the tragedy of loss - we can only strive to persevere.

Whether life is ultimately worth living is up to us. There is nothing more unsettling than a void, but there is nothing more liberating either. Rather than try to make meaning last forever, let’s make the most of what’s available to us for however long we have.

Our respective lives, footprints and even kingdoms will eventually be worn away by the sands of time. Even Ozymandias was helpless to preserve his works, mighty as they were. But to come together in our fragility, as our fragmented selves, to embrace the miracle of existence hand-in-hand - that’s a life worth living.

We should all strive to make our own sentences as rich and meaningful as we can. That’s the only lasting thing we’ll ever create - a chronicle whose every sentence propels our story forward.

We should also take solace in the fact that our anxiety about death, our inevitable fixation on it, brings us together and gives us common ground. As mortals, we always have each other. Perhaps we will someday find a better answer to our suffering. In the meantime, the knowledge of our collective struggle will relieve us of our solitude. The most we can do is press on, grapple with the abyss and learn to continue living - and even, hopefully, to rejoice.

May the memories of all who have left us be for a blessing.

I am indebted to Ting Cho Lau for his contributions to the discussion and philosophical inspiration behind this column.

Jonathan Iwry is a College senior from Bethesda, Md., studying philosophy. His last name is pronounced “eev-ree.” Email him at jon.iwry@gmail.com.

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