This past weekend, I attended a wake and service for the daughter of a cousin of mine. She had been ill for several years, but her passing was still a shock for both her extended and especially her immediate family: she was only 40 years old and had a husband as well as five children, ranging in age from 12 to 22. Aside from the obvious tragedy and sadness of a young wife and mother passing away and leaving behind a grieving husband and children, the service was also suffused with a quiet celebration of this young woman’s well-lived life; she was truly and well loved by those who knew her.
One of the speakers at the service was her immediate supervisor at the accounting firm where she worked, an avuncular and gentlemanly figure who spoke softly of the woman who had called him “my work Dad.” What struck me about his remarks was that he was deeply thoughtful of the impact she had had on others at the office, as well as on her friends and on her family, through two guiding principles by which she lived: live fully and “suck the life out of every minute,” and be joyful and have fun in everything you do.
As a sometime student of philosophy, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Heidegger and his notion that it is only by confronting our own impending death and mortality that we truly live and develop our “authentic self.” Doing a little more reading (Being and Time, 1927), I found that Heidegger proposed that the only proper attitude in the face of our own mortality is a “courageous anxiety” that focuses us on freedom and possibility and brings about an “impassioned freedom towards death” (there’s a great, concise summary at http://www.deathreference.com/Gi-Ho/Heidegger-Martin.html). In other words, only by facing our own death in an honest, straightforward matter can we be truly alive and truly free. Living with disease and the constant presence of her own mortality, this young woman understood instinctively what Heidegger meant: knowing she might die earlier than she might otherwise because of her illness, she chose as her response not fear, but a courageous desire to “suck the life out of every minute” she was alive, and to have fun while doing it.
This is an important lesson for all of us, in that none of us knows the time or manner of our own death (the proverbial bus is always waiting at every crosswalk for each of us); we could die today, or tomorrow, or 40 years from now – we simply don’t know. With that kind of uncertainty, how can we truly be free and alive? By living as this young woman did: not ignoring or avoiding our own impending death, but by confronting it head-on on a daily basis and responding by always living our lives as fully and completely as we can, while we still can. “Fun” might be optional for some of us, but she also reminds us that our happiness is ultimately our own choice, and we can choose happiness over sorrow or fear if we know that we can do so at any moment. To me, that seems core to any definition of “freedom,” the ability to choose our response to life in each moment that we are alive, no matter how grim or constrained things might seem – and wouldn’t each of us choose rather to be happy than sorrowful, and to live a full life rather than a narrow one, knowing that it is ultimately within our own power to make that choice?