What is death? A “tragic mask.” Turn it and examine it. See, it does not bite. The poor body must be separated from the spirit either now or later, as it was separated from it before.
—Epictetus, Discourses II.1, 2nd century C.E.
Me: I’m going to pick up a rental car.
Driver: Ah, is your car in the shop?
Me: No, but my fiancée needs our car tomorrow, and I need to go out of town for a funeral.
Me: I have never met them—it’s my great uncle who passed away. My father can’t make it to the funeral, but I live nearby, so I’m going to pay respects on behalf of our family.
Driver: How old was your great uncle?
Me: In his 80’s, I think? So, a full, long life.
Driver: Let me ask you something. You say your uncle was 80 years old. You are going to the viewing, no? You will see the body—see how it is still. What do you think is happening to him right now; where do you think he is?
Me: Personally, I believe that there is no life after death.
Driver: I see. Do you see that tree over there?
Driver: How old do you think it is?
Me: Probably older than 80 years.
Driver: Yes. It may live to two hundred. Some trees, even to a thousand years.
And we humans—we, we have these eyes, we have hands, and we have this mind that can see so much, and dream of so much, and do so much. And yet we only live to about 80 years old, if we are lucky. But that tree—that tree can see nothing, feel nothing, and just grows to great heights.
Let me ask you—do you think that is fair?
Me: Heh, no, it sure doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Driver: That’s why I have to believe that we have a purpose for being here, and that we are meant to live far longer than a tree. Even with all our best medical technology, we barely even live to a hundred years. But I think that can’t be what God intends for us.
Me: Unless—unless God has a purpose for us right now, in this short life.
Driver: Yes, but… it is such a short and painful thing. How can that be?
Me: I like the philosophy of the ancient Stoics—they were some of the philosophers the Apostle Paul argued with in Athens, if you remember?
They also believed that our lives had a purpose—but they taught that Nature, God, had left the process of creating humanity unfinished. We can see the potential that was embedded into humanity—we are like half-finished lines of poetry. It’s up to us to follow the outlines of our purpose, and to fill in the remainder. Our goal is to pursue virtue in the here and now, and we don’t necessarily need a long life in order to be complete.
Driver: Ah, but do you really think God would make us this way, with these eyes and this mind, if this short life was all He had planned for us? Why would he put us in such a world, with so much pain, if this was all He intended for us?
Me: That is a very ancient question—the Epicureans and the Stoics were debating those questions thousands of years ago (see the Epicurean paradox and the Stoic theodicy)! The question is older than Christianity, even.
One cannot attain a life free of anxiety if one is too concerned about prolonging it—if one counts living through many consulships as an important good.
Rehearse this every day, so that you will be able to let go of life with equanimity. Many people grasp and hold on to life, like those caught by a flash flood who grasp at weeds and brambles. Most are tossed about between the fear of death and the torments of life: they do not want to live but do not know how to die.
—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 4.4,5; 1st century C.E.