In Life in Light of Death, James A. Lindsay urges readers to fully, consciously accept that they will cease to exist. He describes the negative social and personal consequences of failing to do so, and argues passionately for the benefits of recognizing those aspects of life that are the most important and meaningful in life while there is still time to center them.
— A review of Life in the Light of Death by James A. Lindsay —
Lindsay’s combination of relentless realism and compassionate humanism results in an unusual and strangely endearing little book. The tone is conversational, occasionally ironic but more often passionately earnest. It draws on the personal experiences of the author, psychological studies and incontrovertible facts about the future of the universe and humanity. At times we are presented with facts which must be accepted and at others requested to use our imaginations vividly and introspectively to fully appreciate what they mean for our own lives and how we should live them. The conflict between hard, external realities and the fragile human psyche which seeks to protect itself by denying them can be resolved, Lindsay suggests, by applying the latter to the former honestly and courageously.
Lindsay begins by looking at the realization of death from which children are largely free and the onset of existential dread in relation to our own deaths and those of people we love. The need to manage this psychologically leads to various forms of denial and Lindsay writes at length about the stories we tell ourselves to accomplish this; physical immortality stories, resurrection stories, transcendence stories and legacy stories. At the same time, he painstakingly closes down all escape routes from reality and emphasizes the inevitability of every one of us ceasing to exist and ultimately being forgotten. He discusses religious and non-religious versions of these stories and considers the ways in which our customs and even our language reveal our denial of death before bringing psychological concepts such as the “peak-end rule” and the “experiencing and remembering selves” to bear on the fear of dying badly and the role this plays in denial of death.
Life in Light of Death advocates forcing ourselves to face death fully and consciously by really focusing on the fact that we will cease to exist, refusing to allow our minds to seize on distractions or immortality narratives, and to keep doing this for months if necessary, enduring all the fear and distress it causes until it no longer does so.
But why put ourselves through this? One reason for which Lindsay argues convincingly is related to the harm done to society by the denial of mortality. It is almost certainly true that the common refusal to recognize ourselves as mammals is at least in part to do with our fear of death. This idea that our true selves are separate from our bodies validates “blank slate” ideas which result in unrealistic and often downright harmful ideas in education, parenting and social engineering. Denial of human nature can contribute to the denial of evolution and obstruction of medical research. When immortality narratives are religious, the notion of immortal souls is tied into morality and connected to abhorrent notions of Heaven and Hell or reincarnation which so often lead to violence, oppression, dehumanization and ostracism of those who challenge or threaten the narrative. It can even skew the way we look at other ethical issues involving death which include meat-eating, suicide and the right to die with dignity, resulting in greater suffering and not a jot less death.
I found myself swayed from my positive position on ethical vegetarianism by Lindsay’s reasoning that it is more an abhorrence of complicity in death than a workable plan to reduce suffering and death. I am less convinced by the argument that suicide (as opposed to dying with dignity) should not be considered a personal right because of our responsibilities and connections to other people. This seems simplistic and to require the assumption that whilst the loved ones of a person choosing to die with dignity will be sympathetic and supportive, those of a person choosing suicide will feel shocked, guilty and bewildered. In fact, because of that empathetic connection between people who love each other, they may well understand and accept the decision even while they grieve.
A far greater focus is placed on the benefit to the individual of fully accepting death. Unless we die suddenly and unexpectedly, we will have to face the prospect of death at some point. The most futile time to be looking back on life in light of it is when it is imminent. There are no “do-overs.” Lindsay draws on the most common regrets and reflections of the dying to argue that a life lived in light of death is all about happiness, connection and passion and that the first of these is achieved by fulfillment of the other two. A life well-spent is one rich in loving connections with other people and keen interests pursued. He advocates the reader spend time vividly imagining he is close to death to re-evaluate life’s meaning and priorities whilst there is time to adjust it.
For Lindsay, connections are of paramount importance. “Except in rare cases, no amount of individualism or love for our activities can overcome the fact that we are ‘ultrasocial’ animals with psychologies evolved in service to that fact.” This is undeniably true but the ability to forget this is associated with the west and with liberalism. For those more constrained by the socially conservative ethic of community or the expectation to prioritize the emotional needs of family, it is likely that reflections from an imagined death-bed could cause the need for individual fulfillment to stand out as a priority. However, this is provided for in a distinction that I found particularly useful between “remorse” for the way we have mistreated or neglected others and “regret” for the ways we have been untrue to ourselves. Reflection on these two concepts when evaluating life from its imagined end is likely to help people find a balance in keeping with their own cultural values and character. Lindsay spends a lot of time reflecting on balance and this part of the book is the least tightly structured and most free-ranging as he considers the problems of missing the most meaningful local issues in pursuit of a grand scheme, of working to obtain more “things” and missing out on time more enjoyably spent, balancing pleasure with practicality, work with leisure and activity with downtime. Imagining being at the end of a long life or a short one can help people establish priorities here.
Lindsay’s final thoughts on kindness cannot be disputed by anyone considering themselves a humanist. Realizing that we are all here together for a short time and will soon die and cease to exist puts petty arguments, grudges and feuds into perspective. It encourages being a kinder, more generous, bigger person even as we realize how small and temporary we are.
Life in Light of Death is an uncomfortable, thought-provoking, humane and oddly charming book.