By Andrea Houchard
(January 2, 2013)
The New Year is a celebration of time that each of us adds to our lives. It is a time to reflect on how we live, but that is something that Sedona people do anyway.
For the most part, people in Sedona have made a conscious choice about where and how to live, and recognize the relationship between the two. A new year brings new plans to a community of creative, mindful people. This is the time of year when we think of renewal and new possibility, so the topic of death might seem like a downer. Surprisingly, it can be just the reverse.
That is what we found out at a Sedona Salon this fall when an intimate group gathered to talk about living with death. Death is a serious topic, and the discussion began with a tone that was sober and somber. But after a few candid accounts of “a brush with fate” and “family loss” (peppered, of course, with Dorothy Parker and Woody Allen jokes), we had a room full of eager interlocutors and nothing smacked of the morbid or melancholy. Acknowledging the inevitability of death made people excited about life.
It also got some folks pretty excited about the afterlife, or whether there is one. We do know that life as we live it comes to an end. But what next? To put it mildly, this is a question about which people disagree.
The fact that we have no definitive means to settle the question often fails to diminish conviction. This may be because while the views have not been uniform, there have been strong beliefs about what happens after death for millennia and all over the world.
Spectacular funerary monuments indicate the power of these beliefs. This summer I was truly awed by the enormous scope and intricate detail of the Terra Cotta Army that was part of the massive tomb for Qin Shi Huang around 210 bc near Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. The pyramids prepared for Egyptian Pharos invest similarly staggering resources in a tomb. These are monuments not just of architecture, but of the convicted mind.
Different religious traditions have different accounts about what happens when we die. The incompatibility of competing accounts does not seem to compromise the confidence of the devout. Atheists are no less resolute about the veracity of their views. Public intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens insist that a dead body leaves just one final carbon footprint and nothing further endures.
How do they know? How does anyone know? It is difficult and in some cases impossible to test the various hypotheses. What happens when we die remains a mystery. We might wonder why we cannot let the question rest. One answer is that it is our nature to want to know.
Even if we cannot be certain about what happens after we die, it is perfectly normal for us to wonder about it. Our curiosity about death and the eternal can be seen as the maximal extension of our curiosity about life and what happens from year to year.
The survival of our species depends on wondering about what will happen next and getting the answer right. We have been hardwired for forecasting since prehistoric times.
Locally we find evidence of this at the V-V petroglyph site, where the Sinagua preserved calendric information to guide and forecast their New Years.
The accuracy of predictive power and the rise of civilization go hand in hand. We predict things on many levels, and this includes personal planning.
People plan, and plans tend to payoff. Retirement savings provide security. Exercise and a good diet engender health. Kind, thoughtful people win friends.
But as Burns’ verse that Steinbeck made famous reminds us, even the best laid plans of mice and men can go awry. Think housing bubble, 2008.
Even still, a plan gone awry is no reason to forego planning. It does remind us, though, of the important distinction between the probable and the certain. We yearn for certainty in an uncertain world. But there is one thing we can count on: death.
Death demarcates the end of a particular Earthly existence. What you do between here and there is the rest of your life. This fact was constantly before the mind of Stoic philosophers.
And while philosophy professors on average are every bit as sexy as Russell Crowe, they seldom make Stoic philosophy as captivating as he did in the movie Gladiator. Crowe’s character Maximus remembers the insight of Marcus Aurelius, “Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.”
What we saw at the Sedona Salon is that when people looked death in the eye, they really did smile. Openly acknowledging the mortality we all face gave people an opportunity to talk to each other about what they care about most, how they choose to live, and why. The finitude of life was not a source of sadness. It was a frame for planning what to do next, and what kind of attitude to have while doing it.
While there are concepts of the unbounded and eternal, the great majority of things we encounter in the world begin, and then end. We observe cycles—life, and death. Looking honestly at the cycle of our own life can give us the courage and the clarity to plan each new year.
Happy new year! And happy planning!
Andrea Houchard is a Sedona resident and director of Philosophy in the Public Interest at Northern Arizona University. Sedona Salons are Philosophy in the Public Interest programs that give people an opportunity to think about happiness, death, courage, and other issues of enduring human interest.