Figure and ground

I was fascinated to see, in Bern’s long and very philosophical comment about Eros, that every example she gave framed life connections between people against the background of death. From Harold and Maude to Portrait of Jennie, and of course our dear wonderful Randy Pausch in real life, every example she gave (and they were very good examples!) suggested that the ways we become emotionally connected to each other, and create meaning in each other’s lives, is intimately tied up with the knowledge that death is waiting somewhere nearby.

I completely agree. I used to ask myself what kinds of creatures we humans would be, were we able to live forever. Eventually I realized that the question is practically meaningless, in the sense that any such creatures, even should they exist, would not be recognizably human. As much as we generally hate death, are horrified by it, and the way it takes away those we love the most (and eventually takes us as well), we actually define our lives by death’s shadow.

We constantly make use of this shadow, in a million little ways. The stages of our lives, from childhood to adolescence to the successive stages of adulthood, have very little meaning as steady states of being – they are literally defined by their flow from one to the other. Childhood discoveries, getting your first grown-up tooth, discovering what it feels like to fall in love, going to college and finding out what you are really good at, seeking out a life partner – just about anything you can think of in your life that has any emotional power or resonance – is defined by change and by our intuitive understanding of the impermanence of all experience.

In a sense, life is a fractal: This moment in time only has meaning by virtue of being nestled in a particular minute of an hour within a day, and so on, out to the month, year and lifetime. If a minute were taken “out of time”, it would become unmoored from that nested set of chinese boxes that individuals and cultures build from the raw material of time’s arrow.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate the fact that I’m going to die one day. But I am also acutely aware that this very brain with which I am thinking such thoughts would contain no system of values that I could recognize, would not be able to discern any light or meaningful joy, without that shadow behind it, framing and defining the edges of that joy.

For without that shadow to frame the light, how would we ever be able to understand just how precious, how infinitely precious, are the moments we have with those that we love?

One Response to “Figure and ground”

  1. Troy says:

    I have to ask, is it death, or just extrema that frame the light of your meaningful joy? I’d argue that you could have poignant moments of pure bliss without the spectre of death looming, but, rather, the knowledge of the temporary nature of bliss.

    “Every time it rains, it rains, pennies from Heaven..” -Bing Crosby

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