I just finished reading The Stranger by Albert Camus. The main character of the novel, Monsieur Meursault, ruminates on the meaninglessness of life as he awaits his execution in the French Algiers. Meursault is a stranger to social norms, and he satirically examines the absurdity of human emotions and customs when faced with a predicament eliciting these said responses. Meursault bemuses about the absurdity of human life as he is executed for killing the Arab man at the Algerian beach.
Perhaps Camus views life – and in tandem, death – the way Meursault does. Though I do not necessarily agree that human life essentially boils down to the absurd, it has gotten me to think more about death. We all know that once people are born into this world, they will eventually meet life’s end in the form of death. But have we really thought about the fact of life, the un-doing of life?
Death is one of the most ironic qualities of life. It’s the one resolute fact we are all acquainted with – that all humans die eventually – but we are surprised to no end when death actually happens to our loved ones, to those who are close to us, to friends, strangers, accomplices, colleagues, whatever. Why is that? Why is something that we are so familiar with also something that we struggle with the most?
Of course, many thinkers in the past (and the present) have attempted to frame death in their respective ideological frameworks. Camus’ endeavor with The Stranger is one example. Some resort to hedonism when explaining death, some to fatalism. Religion is often the answer to appease the worries of man. Many religions diverge in their doctrines of proffering the panacea to mankind – that is, what lies beyond death. In the most radical sense, some seek for immortality, though no one actually attains it. Qin Shi Huang of Qin Dynasty comes to mind when I think of this example. He was convinced he was immortal, until his son killed him.
But I digress. I write this post because the idea of death never entered my mainstream conscience until recently. I’ve realized that for me to get to where I am right now – age 21 and relatively healthy – I have had to evade death multiple times. People jokingly say that you’re risking death if you walk outside because you might be hit by a car, but there is a grain of truth to that seemingly improbable statement. We can’t choose when we die; rather, death chooses us. People hope to die a certain idealistic way, but I say that’s ludicrous and insensitive to those who’ve succumbed to death in unexpected ways. When talking about death, we are all clueless children.
So, then, is there a “correct” way of facing one’s death? I’m not sure, and I don’t know if I will ever be sure. I do think, however, that the best way to come to terms with our notions of death is to read literature on how others have dealt with theirs. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is where I found solace. Kalanithi was a coveted neurosurgeon about to complete his residency at Stanford when he was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic lung cancer. All his life’s achievement crumbled with one scan of his body.
If courage was to manifest in some form or another, I think I found it in Kalanithi’s encounter with his imminent death. His examination of his health was poignant but honest. He knew he had little to live, and he accepted that fact without pretense. Instead, he proceeded to write a eulogy to himself, a legacy that he would leave for his wife Lucy, his daughter, and his readers. I was floored and found myself reading his book over and over. Kalanithi is gone, but he is still remembered by many.
We all want to be remembered after we pass on. I want to be remembered after I die. If nobody remembers me, did my life matter? How will I be remembered as? What will I be remembered for? These questions float around my head from time to time, and there is no way of knowing concrete answers for them. This is why death is tricky.