Would It Kill You to Talk about Death for an Hour?

In fact, it didn’t! Participants adopted a lively, healthy approach to discussing the Inevitable at a recent Socratic Conversation conducted by Ron Gross, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Innovation in Education. Spurred by Sam Harris’ video, It Is Always Now (which looks philosophically at the present moment and why it’s important to live the now — fully), we considered how our awareness of Death affects how we are living our lives.

We started by responding to the thoughts of different people which had been collected over the past week on a flip chart:

  • “Not a bit—not helpful.”
  • “Makes me realize how much I enjoy living!”
  • “Stay healthy.”
  • “Lots of time to think about this when I’m older.”
  • “My culture reveres those who have come before.”
  • “Our culture and our society deny death—and that lessens our valuation of life.”
  • “I lost my Mom last year and that has changed my course.”
  • “Death is not what we think it is. We endure!”
  • “This Life….Now!”

The participants, ranging from a funeral director to an elementary school teacher, counselor to widower, survivor to student, shared highly personal stories. What arose from the interplay of thoughts and feelings was a realization of Death as a “uniter” in joining a diversity of perspectives, professions, prospects. As humans we can — and must — design our destiny, using an open heart and mind to shape the undeniable facts: we are born, we live, and we die.

Books on display included The Death Class: A True Story about Life, by Erika Hayasaki (Simon and Schuster, 2014); Our Changing Journey to the End: Reshaping Death, Dying, and Grief in America, by Cristina Staud (Praeger, 2013); and Death in the Classroom: Writing about Love and Loss, by Jeffrey Berman (SUNY, 2009).

Among sentiments, experiences, thoughts expressed were the following:

  • If we are conscious of death we may be more happy. If we embrace the fact that we will all die, we may make better decisions.
  • What would it be like if we always live in the now, like children? Would we be too consumed with constant needs?
  • We live on the “planet of distraction”. We need to rethink how we use our time and worry less about things that don’t really matter so much.
  • If we spend all our time preparing for the future, the future has arrived.
  • It is through our minds that we communicate with those who have gone. Our souls are distributed in the process.
  • Certain professions, like cooking and dancing, help us live in the present.
  • Beautiful things move us, and we can learn to be kinder to ourselves and others.
  • Just because you’re dead does not make you smart! The Afterlife is revealing.
  • Human bodies are temporary; our souls are eternal.
  • Hell is no God.
  • Life and death kind of flow into each other.
  • People, especially the terminally ill, can live in all temporal dimensions – the present, past, and future, at once.
  • Our inner character is formed by our relationships with each other. Everything is connected and meaning in life is made through these relationships.
  • We relate to each other outside a framework of time – for example, through our ancestors.

One participant, Christina Staudt, chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Death, commented afterward: “It was a joy to see so many people of diverse backgrounds and outlooks express their divergent, and potentially volatile views, in such a civilized atmosphere.”

Be sure to join us for our next Socratic conversation, What’s Your Triple Package?, on Thursday, March 27, 4-5:15pm.

Image: “Statues on Prague Astronomical Clock“, by Sebaso. Licensed under Creative Commons.