Can death clarify what one ought to care about in life? How so? Or does death render life ultimately meaningless? Is our own death something we ‘hide from’ in some way? Is it different from...
Is our own death something we ‘hide from’ in some way? Is it different from how we normally think about death? Does death make life meaningless, or more meaningful? How so? What do the existentialists have to say about this?
Those who have come within a whiskers breadth of death seem to agree that death clarifies what we ought to care about in life. I've not heard anyone who has held Death's hand say, "Thus life is meaningless." Rather, life is clarified but not always in an affirmative way: what to care about is clarified while what not to care about is also clarified.
Specifically, those who have felt the icy breath of Death down their necks may loose patience with weeping and moaning over that class of life's troubles that will sort themselves out naturally: for example, the idea that a healthy strong football playing lad of 20 needs prayer to get over a cold becomes ridiculous as do other petty grievances that can be solved by a change in activity or outlook.
Conversely, those who have walked away from a confrontation with Death value the love of dear ones, peace, amity, and good will in a far more intense way than before. If religious, they also value the importance of attempting to "keep a clean slate" (though attempts may fail) without anger and hatred and vengeance and ill-will mucking up the slate board because they feel a near-brush certainty that these things will be judged and the judgement will be adverse.
Existentialists in this group I'm describing may not abandon their existential belief that all is random, without order and without meaning, but they may find their belief that one must build one's own order and meaningfulness confirmed, and they may shy further away from nihilism, which says order and meaningfulness are hopeless and cannot be attained under any means.
“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you'll never have.”
― Søren Kierkegaard
Death, as an inevitable reality, can lead people to do great things. Faulkner wrote about how you had to write against eternity. He said that competing with one's contemporaries was fine, but what the real artist has to do is compete against eternity and death.
Regarding the quote here, we might take Faulkner's position in two ways. First, we might say that the reality of death became a hurdle to be overcome. Faulkner was not thinking of a future that he would never have, but attempting to secure a future that he would have - due to his artistic achievement.
Secondly and oppositely, we might take Faulkner and Kierkegaard to be at odds with one another. The philosopher may say that the artist was living in a painful state wherein he was not truly acting as himself, but instead was betraying his life by ignoring it and living for a future that he could not possible enjoy.
However we read this, we can see that in both cases death makes life more meaningful and leads to the idea that in life we have a choice - to work to overcome death's censure on our time in the world or work to enjoy the one life we are given.
People have been asking these questions for thousands of years, and nobody has come up with definitive answers. Some will say that life is real, life is earnest, etc., while others will say that life is totally meaningless. I suggest that you read a couple of short stories told from the points of view of two men who are dying and reflecting about the lives they have lived. These are Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Illyich" and Ernest Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." It is common for intelligent young people to start thinking about existentialist questions such as yours when they are undergraduates in college, because so many courses in literature and philosophy touch on such matters. However, it is my belief that a person needs some twenty or thirty years of life experience before he or she can form any satisfying personal opinions on what is, after all, a subjective matter. In the meantime it might be better to use one's college experience to prepare for the more pragmatic problems of life, such as finding a career, getting married, and having children. Real life will give you enough immediate problems to worry about without worrying about what it all means.
Death can clarify what an individual ought to care about in life, but it depends on the individual and their belief system. Death puts things into perspective for many people. It is as if death slams on the brakes to our often frenetic lives and causes us to stop and think of what is truly important.
Death does not render life meaningless to those who believe in an afterlife - life after our earthly physical existence. Death does not always render life meaningless to those who do not believe in an afterlife. They may find great meaning in their life and achieve significant things whether they believe in life after physical death or not. We can, at times, run from death, afraid of it, and "chase the wind" in endless pursuits as a way of occupying our time and minds so we do not have to think of our mortality.
I've heard both sides of this argument. Some feel that death does indeed make life meaningless. These folks usually don't believe in a purposeful God or any kind of afterlife.
On the other hand, if we knew we were going to live forever, wouldn't our time alive lose its significance? Our decisions and actions are ultimately important and meaningful because we don't have forever in which to become good people and do good things for others. The fact that we have no assurances about how long we will live should make each day more meaningful than it would be otherwise. Of course, we don't always adopt this attitude. It takes a certain awareness of our mortality. Not everyone has that awareness.
With reference to all the daredevils of this world, it is said that the courting of death is what makes them feel most alive. When one envisions that gossamer thread between being alive and dying, most people have an existential awakening, to be sure, not to mention a certain shuddering of adreline. Much like one's having been very ill, when one is well, the healthy condition feels so much more wonderful, and is so appreciated. After all, the understanding of the positive is directly proportional to the degree to which one has experienced the negative. Certainly, an encounter with death or with the death of a loved one serves to clear the mind of the trivial and banal.
I do think that we "hide from" our own deaths more than we hide from the idea of death in general. It is relatively easy for us to contemplate the fact that other people will die. There will be many people whose deaths will devastate us, but yet we can prepare ourselves for those deaths and we can think about what we are going to need to do when those people die. But our own death tends to be something we shy away from thinking about. We know that it will happen, but the idea that we will no longer exist in this particular way (if in any way) is so hard for us to deal with that we retreat from the thought.
Memories and accomplishments will be remembered long after a person's death. I recently attended a funeral of the former dean of music at a nearby university. Former students and teachers showed up to honor his memory, and the man's own music (he was a world-renowned organist and composer) was played at the service. He will live on through the memories of his vast family, students, friends and colleagues.