Please, stop.

Last Saturday night I went to see Doctor Strange. It requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief—especially if spiritual poppycock is among your pet peeves, like in my case—but that’s not really a problem for me. I’ll hardly be waiting for a sequel, and I still prefer Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, but all in all it was an entertaining movie.

However, there were two clichés that really ruined the experience for me: the implied, groundless cliché that ‘living forever is not as nice as you think, it’s something only bad guys would want and it comes at a high price’ creeping up throughout the entire movie, and the inevitable ‘death gives life its meaning’ cliché. This is the sort of stuff that would generally fly me into a rage and push me to write a venomous, demolishing article about the movie, but not this time.

I am really tired of hearing this false mantra being mindlessly repeated over and over. Books, movies, newspaper articles, people—everyone seems to be persuaded that without death, life would have no meaning. No one, though, bothers explaining why this depressing claim would hold true, and if they do, their arguments boil down to unconvincing, carelessly generalised hand-waving about how you couldn’t properly appreciate a good thing without its opposite. That’s like saying that in order to appreciate not having cancer, you need to have had cancer first. As I said in an admittedly much less diplomatic article, I appreciate how being mortal may make you see things differently from how an immortal being might see them, but that is not the same as death being mandatory to appreciate life. 

So, please, stop. Stop repeating this dangerous and foolish mantra. Don’t let movies, books, or anyone tell you that death gives life its meaning. Don’t let anyone decide for you what is the meaning of life, or what gives meaning to it, because in general there is no such thing. Meaning is relative, not absolute, and you get to decide for yourself what gives meaning to your life, not an age-old piece of nonsense people perpetuate merely to sugarcoat death. Death is nothing special. It is not a monster. It is not a foe, no more than the status of ‘broken’ is for an inanimate object. Death is the name we give to the status of a biological creature whose body is too damaged to keep functioning. That’s all it is. Nothing more, nothing less. When our bodies function properly, we live. When they don’t—when they’re ‘broken’—we die. Like all living creatures, we like it better when we function than when we don’t. Species wouldn’t last very long if they weren’t wired this way.

I don’t know what gives meaning to your life, but I can tell you what gives meaning to mine. People I love. Things I like doing. Music I like listening to. Playing piano. Drawing. Writing. Learning new things. Having fun with friends. Discussing science. Enjoying a beautiful landscape. Wondering about the countless mysteries of nature we haven’t solved yet—and many, many other things. Maybe none of these things gives meaning to your life, and they don’t have to. As said, you can find your own—and if it turned out to be death, well, so be it, but find out for yourself, do not let others tell you that without death life has no meaning. That is not a universal truth, and quite frankly, it is a statement that is contradicted every day by our very actions.

We have hospitals to cure sick people. We have international organisations trying to save people in poor countries from starvation, to put an end to war and help its victims. Why all these initiatives aimed at preserving our lives, if death is what gives them meaning? If death gives meaning to life, why do Doctor Strange and his superhero friends strive so hard to save the lives of the people on Earth? Why deprive all those lives of their meaning? If you are struck by a fatal illness, why turn to doctors to save your life? Perhaps the time has come for death to give it meaning.

Do you see the nonsense yet? The very idea that death gives meaning to life, when we’ve tried so very hard from time immemorial to stave off death for as long as possible, is absurd—or perhaps, a hint that we don’t care that much for our lives to have a meaning after all. Does all that you do, feel, and care for, magically become worthless if you don’t die? Are the people you love dear to you only because one day you won’t have them any more? What about the things they have done for you, or the fact they understand you like no one else does?

No, I don’t think death gives meaning to life. Things I fill my life with give it meaning, and all my death is going to accomplish is taking those things away from me. (Or rather, it’s going to take me away from those things.) Ageing is the worst example of this: It gradually makes you more and more unable to dedicate yourself to the things that give your life meaning, thus making your life more and more meaningless. Eventually, it deprives you of life entirely.

So please, stop repeating the death mantra. Stop believing in this crazy nonsense. I understand where it comes from, and I understand our need to rationalise death, but it is time to move on. It is time to look at death for what it is and keep on refining our tools to stave it off indefinitely, so that people can live in perfect health for as long as they wish.

Stop repeating the death mantra, or progress of medical science runs the risk of being hindered by cohorts of people thinking that death is necessary and thus we should not cure all diseases. Think about it for a moment: Should we not cure Alzheimer’s disease, or cardiovascular diseases, or cancer, to make sure that something will kill us and give our lives ‘meaning’? Are we really going to put the brakes on medicine for fear that too long a life might be boring? How many more excuses are we going to make up?

Please, no more excuses. Please, stop.

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