To truly live, we must face reality of death

November 02, 2001|By Crispin Sartwell

"One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times." - Taira Shigesuke, Code of the Samurai

YOU AND I, we are going to die. No matter how safe we may think we are, and no matter how hard we may work to make ourselves safe, death is always close to us. The conditions of life on earth are radically, continually dangerous. Everything that lives feeds on life, and everything that lives dies.

Before Sept. 11, we were living without admitting to ourselves, without truly knowing, that we are mortal. If there is a word for that hallucinatory comfort, that comfortable detachment from reality, it is "decadence." We were vulnerable before Sept. 11; we'll be vulnerable after the war on terrorism. That creatures who live in as intimate a relation to death as we do could feel as suddenly endangered as we do is testimony to our powers of evasion and self-deception.

Day by day, moment by moment, the web of our relations and the genius of our technology is devoted to deferring death, disguising it, delaying it, pretending it can't or won't happen. It is against the law to drive without a seatbelt. It is against the law to shoot heroin. It is against the law to read a billboard for cigarettes.

It is against the law to help someone die who wants to. But it is not, so far, against the law to die.

Drive in a roll cage, go to the gym two hours a day, live in a hermetically sealed bubble, and nevertheless, you will die. Be good, be right, deserve life, and you will die. Be rich, be powerful, be beautiful, and you will die. Our death is always in us and always around us; it is the medium in which we live, like fish suspended in water.

Knowing death brings you closer to life, because they are not different things. Trying never to die makes you less alive. Knowing death brings you closer to yourself, closer to your world; it brings you into reality. If you don't really know that you're going to die, you don't know that you're alive.

And knowing death cures fear, which is why part of the discipline of the samurai was a continual meditation on death.

Osama bin Laden and the Taliban have said clearly that we lack the resolve to do what must be done to dislodge or kill them. What they mean is that we have no relation to death, that we are too decadent to deal with the real situation that confronts us. If we're going to prove that wrong, we're going to have to face death squarely, on the ground. We are going to have to face the enemy.

Victory is an overflowing of life, and so it is an expression of the willingness to face death. Know that you are fighting for something worth fighting for, then draw your weapon and fight in the best way you know how.

Life is war, and we are warriors. That is as true for a soccer mom opening her mail as for an Army Ranger in Afghanistan. We're all in a position, today, to choose life and death over fear.

Today is a day we may die. And it is a good day to live.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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