Since the dawn of time, people have recognised the importance of asking big questions about the meaning of life. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates went so far as to claim that “a life that is unexamined is not worth living”. Did he have a point?
At some stage in your life, you may indeed have found yourself asking ‘big questions’ about the meaning of life or the nature of death.
On the other hand, perhaps you have not given these kind of questions an awful lot of thought. The poet W.H. Auden said that death is “like the distant roll of thunder at a picnic”. That sums up how many us think about death. We know it’s coming eventually, but we are rather more focused on the here and now.
Andrew Goodhead is familiar with this kind of disengagement. He hosts a regular Death Chat at St Christopher’s Hospice in London, where he works as a chaplain. This group, which is open to all, gets together at the hospice on a regular basis to talk about issues to do with death and dying.
He explains: “I think it’s important to talk about death for a very simple reason; whatever stage of life people are at, death is around in one way or another. The death of a friend, colleague or relative raises issues of mortality and can prompt questions about the meaning of life.”
He continues: “Being open and honest about death is also a public health issue. To be a healthy society, we have to be willing to talk about death and dying.
“Initiatives such as Death Chat are a means for the public, patients, carers and the bereaved to talk about this important subject in a safe space.”
Research has shown that dying people often want to feel like they have made a difference to the world, that their lives ‘meant’ something. Throughout history, many people have made huge differences to the world. We might think of those who have invented new technologies, discovered cures for diseases or fought against inequality.
For most of us, however, the difference we make will be much simpler – yet still deeply important. The meaning of your life might be linked to your family, your career or your role in the community. Perhaps you’re a great mum, a successful police officer, or a regular volunteer at the local animal shelter.
Andrew Goodhead agrees that dying people often reflect on the meaning of their lives:
“Terminal disease can take away someone’s plans for the future, meaning that they have to make sense of their world in a smaller frame and a shorter timescale. This can be very hard to do, but it can help to express that loss of meaning and purpose and simply have someone hear that. As they approach death, people tend to reflect back on both the good and bad things that have happened to them. Some things they regret, while other things they look back on with enormous pleasure.”
Of course, meaning may not always be so easy to find. For example, a child who is dying may not feel like they have yet had the chance to fulfill their full potential. And we all recognize that, despite our best intentions, life doesn’t always go according to plan or that sometimes, we can make a mess of things.
The original Art of Dying Well book from the Middle Ages – on which this website is broadly based – was honest about this. It pointed out that although the thief who was crucified next to Jesus had certainly not lived well, he definitely died well. In other words, you can still die well – even when things haven’t always gone your way.
Further to issues of more personal meaning, you might have more general questions, such as what – if anything – happens after death. This is a huge subject. If it is concerning you, talking to a religious minister, chaplain or counsellor in person is probably the best way forward.
One intriguing perspective on the possibility of life after death, however, is based on a reflection on human nature. As the former leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Basil Hume, once wrote:
“It never seemed right to me that death should be the end, the final irrevocable act. Human life for me has always pointed beyond; it makes sense only if it is a prelude to and foretaste of a richer, more lasting existence.
“Physical death, part of the endless cycle of decay and regeneration in the natural order, has its own beauty and inevitability. I came gradually to accept that our human denial of death, our constant flight from it and our fear of it, are evidence that the human spirit, our deepest identity and individuality, belongs to a different order of reality. We are in part imperishable.”1
Reflecting on how God has a purpose for our lives, Blessed John Henry Newman wrote:
“God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.”