(cc) Cameron Russell
(cc) Cameron Russell

In a passage from Chapter 22 of the writings of Chuang-tse, the philosopher Lao Dan is quoted as saying “…life is just a temporary congealed thing.  Although some are long lived and some die young, how much of a difference is there really?  It’s all a matter of no more than a single instant.”

Objectively, if we compare the time span of a human life to the time span of, say, a mountain, a lifetime might seem but an instant, and one might well ask what difference?  But speaking from a subjective point of view, I’d answer “it makes all the difference in the world.” Because I still live, the world’s differences make a difference to me.  I care about them.  When I become a corpse, I won’t care a whit about any of it.

Nowhere, I think, is there a more extreme difference between the subjective and objective points of view than in this question of the difference between our being alive and our being dead.  In the science of wildlife management, for instance, it is taken for granted that what is important is the population of the whole species.  The life and death of the individual animal is not considered.  I suspect that the individual duck would prefer to dabble around the muck of the pond rather than feed a hunter.  The wildlife manager, however, does not dwell on individual preferences.

Generals, in times of war, throw soldiers into battle and they too do not dwell on individual preferences.  The outcome of the battle is the central concern.  But most of the soldiers who lose their lives, I suspect, would have opted for a longer rather than a shorter life.

Since the rise of the scientific method, there has been an increasing emphasis on the difference between the subjective and the objective.  Along with this emphasis has been a tendency to valorize the objective and denigrate the subjective.  Within the scientific disciplines, this emphasis is justified. But life is not a science, an individual is not a data point.  At least to ourselves we are subjects not objects.

As mentioned above, the living person cares; corpses and corpse-like things do not care.  Caring is at the base of our subjectivity, but it is also at the base of our objectivity.  Scientists seek objectivity because they care about a certain kind of truth.  Objectivity is a value, and values are a focused form of caring.  Subjectivity is required for objectivity, but the reciprocal is not true.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that though science is based on caring for a certain kind of truth, the discoveries of science have yet to produce a credible explanation for how a material and mechanistic universe, as a part of its reality, gives rise to caring beings, beings that struggle to understand the rest of its reality?  The universe may not care about us, but we care about it nonetheless.

From the point of view of the caring subject, one would think that a central concern would be: What is worth caring about?  Yet it seems that a lot of people don’t really give this question much thought.  Life is short and uncertain, yet how often our attention is without focus, without any real care?  Despite the apparent brevity of life, perhaps many of us find we have more time than we know what to do with.

Several years ago, I had major heart surgery.  The surgeon, bless his heart, was a good doctor and scientist.  He cared a great deal about fixing my physical heart, but little concern for me as an individual.  In the brief conversation he had with me the evening before the surgery, he mentioned quite matter-of-factly that there was a one in a hundred chance that I would not survive the surgery.  After quoting these odds, he left and I laid in bed and dwelt upon the possibility of death.  At first I felt a bit apprehensive, but then a little voice inside said, “you know, if you die you don’t have to care about all this stuff any more.”  That made me laugh and I felt calm and slept well.

The next morning, after the surgery when I awoke from the anesthetic, my very first thought was “I’m still alive!” Ever since then, this has been my daily mantra — I’m still alive.  This mantra is an ongoing reminder to fully cherish whatever time I have left in this life.  

Cherishing life and accepting death may seem like opposite attitudes, but I think they are very much of a piece. This, likely, is the ultimate point of the chapter from Chuang-tse that I quoted from at the beginning of this article. It is natural to want to live, but we need to accept that the process of life includes death.  If we don’t, our apprehensions about death can cause us to be overly concerned about not dying rather than filled with the caring for life that our brief appearance in this world makes possible.


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