Contemplations of Life and Death  

My contemplations of mortality and those of Roger Cohen have been subjects of previous posts.[1] Additional contemplations are prompted by an article by two philosophy professors, John Kaag and Clancy Martin.[2]

Their starting point is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, “Ozymandias,” in which an anonymous traveler discovers a bust and pedestal, half-buried in windswept sands, with the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

This poem, they say, delivers a perennial message: “All of this will be over soon, faster than you think. Fame has a shadow — inevitable decline.” Our existential fragility “is overlooked in most of our waking hours” and “must be faced even by the greatest among us.”

We, however, “tend to defer the question of living or dying well until it’s too late to answer. This might be the scariest thing about death: coming to die only to discover, in Thoreau’s words, that we haven’t lived.” We “pretend that dying is something that is going to happen in some distant future, at some other point in time, to some other person. But not to us. At least not right now. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not even next decade. A lifetime from now.”

“As surely as time passes, [however,] we human beings are dying for something. The trick to dying for something is picking the right something, day after week after precious year. And this is incredibly hard and decidedly not inevitable.” But “we have a remarkable degree of choice about what to do, think and become in the meantime, about how we go about living, which means we have a remarkable degree of choice over how we go about our dying. The choice, like the end itself, is ultimately ours and ours alone.”

If we succeed in liberating ourselves from the delusion of immortality, “we may find that confronting the fact of our own impermanence can do something unexpected and remarkable — transform the very nature of how we live.”

All of this makes sense to me, but this article does not provide guidance on how one should decide what to do “day after week after precious year.” For me, this triggers the Christian notion of vocation and the words of Frederick Buechner, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said “the word ‘vocation’ . . . means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[3]


[1] Previous posts: Intimations of Mortality (Mar. 8, 2012); Mortality (Apr. 8, 2014); Death Certificates’ Documentation of Mortality (Apr. 11, 2014); Why I Do Not Hope To Die at 75 (Sept. 25, 2014); Further Reflections on Ezekiel Emmanuel’s Desire to Die at 75 (Sept. 30, 2014); Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Roger Cohen’s Gentle Words of Wisdom (Dec. 3, 2016).

[2] Kaag & Martin, Looking Death in the Face, N.Y. Times (Dec. 26, 2016),

[3] My General Thoughts About Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014); Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings? (Dec. 7, 2016).