When people we love die, whole universes die with them. Those of us still here are not sad for them; we’re sad for us. Those people were integral to our existence. Their lives were lamps that lit ours. We loved and were loved by them; suddenly we feel love less and feel less loved. Those people were suns we basked in, and we no longer have those rays to warm us. We’re missing something that cannot be restored. What is lost is not just the person, but our relationship to that person. We still have our memories, but not the immediate emotional connection. Different people bring out different facets of our characters. Much of what we are is a reflection in others. Descartes missed something when he concluded, “I think, therefore I am.” He omitted the social aspect of human existence: “Others think of me, therefore I am.” When someone dies, we lose that part of ourselves, as well as the dead person. We feel diminished by the absence of that person.

Hobbes viewed humans as primarily self-regarding, and these feelings of loss confirm that. Our grief is about ourselves, first and foremost. That is not bad. Don’t confuse it with simple selfishness, which disregards others’ concerns in favor of your own. After death, we don’t know what happens to that person. We hold a variety of beliefs to provide answers, but no one knows for sure. So what we need after someone has died is to let go of that person, to comfort ourselves, and to treasure our memories.

The Tao teaches that we come to know things in comparison with their complements; so with death and life. Those who have had close calls—who walk away from a serious accident or survive cancer against all odds—tell us that they appreciate life more because they have stared death in the face. Most of us take life for granted. We are caught up in satisfying immediate desires, fulfilling long-term goals, and daydreaming in between. Even the Declaration of Independence calls for the pursuit of happiness—if not its attainment. As we saw in the previous chapter, an overarching purpose can be a key to a fulfilling life. But it isn’t the end of the story. Too much perspective on the big picture obliterates the value of just one day or even one hour of life. Those who have faced the immediate prospect of no more days or hours understand that value with a clarity most others lack.

Another Buddhist parable teaches us to face death with equanimity. A monk kept a teacup by his bed, and every night before he went to sleep he turned it upside down. Each morning he righted it. When a puzzled novice inquired, the monk explained that he was symbolically emptying the cup of life each night to signify his acquiescence in his own mortality. The ritual reminded him that he had done the things he needed to do that day and so was ready should death come for him. Each morning, then, he turned the cup up to accept the gift of a new day. He was taking life one day at a time, acknowledging the wonderful gift of life with each dawn but prepared to relinquish it at the end of each day.




Plato, Not Prozac

Lou Marinoff



Follow Me on Instagram