“Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” I believe I first heard this phrase years ago in the – not so great – movie Meet Joe Black, and somehow it always stuck with me. However, it was only after I decided to use it as the inspiration for this magazine issue, that I first realized how it is perceived by others. The website Phrasefinder, for example, describes the saying as “a rather fatalistic and sardonic proverb.” In addition, most of my friends thought this theme was either “depressing” or “dark.” The rest misunderstood it as “Death in Texas” and therefore thought it was weird.
These negative responses struck me as odd, because I had never thought of the phrase as sardonic or dark. ‘Nothing is certain’ to me always meant: anything can happen. Life is full of surprises. The glass is half-full – that kind of thing. Had I been getting it wrong all these years?
Luckily, I came across the (freely available!) online college course by Yale Professor of Philosophy Shelly Kagan. In the 26 lectures that make up this course, Shelly (he strongly suggests you call him by his first name) takes you by the hand and leads you through the valley of the shadow of death.
The lectures that were most interesting to me were the ones in which Shelly tackles the inevitability of death and the fear this generates. Does it make sense to fear the reaper? In order to properly fear something, he explains, you need to be sure the thing you’re afraid of is actually a bad thing. Which, assuming that we can never know what’s it’s like to be dead, is impossible to do. Furthermore, the fact that we are certain we will die at some point, that there’s a set limit, actually makes the things we do more meaningful. So being afraid of death, Shelly argues, might not be reasonable at all. Which made me wonder: if we no longer have to be afraid of death, what’s really the worst that can happen?
So yes, this issue is mostly about death –but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a dark and morbid magazine. I believe we should take mortician Caitlin Doughty’s advice (we feature her in this issue’s podcast) when she recommends to treat Death as if he were your lover. Just like any other relationship, your bond with Death needs to be nurtured. Take the time to really get to know one another; laugh together; and make sure your expectations are fair and realistic. And most importantly, learn how to forgive each other. Because whether you like it or not, breaking up with Death is simply not an option.
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