We’re all going to die edition

It was a beautiful Thursday morning in the smelly, water-starved, garbage-ridden, gridlocked, treeless garden city that is Namma Bengaluru. I woke up, finished sculpting my lats, headed to my favorite coffee shop, and got myself a steaming cup of hot filter coffee.

I parked myself in the empty space in front of the hotel, took out my phone, and then started doom-scrolling. I was also thinking about what to write over the weekend. I had no shortage of ideas, but none of them inappropriately grabbed my imagination.

I scrolled through my Twitter feed for a bit, got tired of the public toilet vibes, and then opened the Substack app. I started scrolling while saving a few articles to never read them again later. Then a post by the amazing Brian Klaas popped up in the feed. He had shared this article with the provocative title “An optimist’s guide to dying.” My imagination was appropriately grabbed.

The article was written by Simon Boas, the Executive Director of Jersey Overseas Aid. I assumed Jersey was the American state of New Jersey, but I was wrong. Jersey is a self-governing island near France. From what I could gather online, Simon has lived a wonderful life.

First of all, I take comfort from the thought that I’ve had a really good – almost charmed – life. (I’ll start this piece with the boasting, in the hope you will have forgiven or forgotten it by the end.) I have dined with lords and billionaires, and broken bread with the poorest people on earth. I have accomplished prodigious feats of drinking. I have allocated and for several years personally delivered at least a hundred million pounds’ worth of overseas aid. I have been a Samaritan and a policeman, and got off an attempted-murder charge in Vietnam (trumped up, to extract a bribe) by singing karaoke in a brothel.

Last August, Simon was diagnosed with throat cancer, and he had written about how he took the bad news. The article I read was published in February of this year, and in that article, he shared that, despite the aggressive treatment, the cancer has spread to his lungs.

The article is not a lament about death but a celebration of life. It’s a poetic meditation on a life worth living. I understand these are weird words to describe an article about death, but I’m sure you will feel the same once you have read it. It takes a special kind of bravery and equanimity to think about the good life you had when you know for a fact that you will die soon.

Reading the article didn’t make me think about the fact that I would die one day, but rather about my inordinate good fortune. I smiled, and a weird and fuzzy feeling that I can only describe as awe, reverence, and gratitude washed over me as I read Simon’s philosophical words.

And finally, the thought I keep coming back to is how lucky it is to have lived at all. To exist is to have won the lottery. In fact, there are so many bits of extraordinarily-unlikely good luck that have occurred just for us to be born, that it’s like hitting the jackpot every day of the year. Consider some of them.

There is something rather than nothing. The laws of physics, the strengths of forces, the mass of an electron, are poised precisely so that stars and planets can form. Inanimate stardust somehow combined to become self-replicating, and then somehow developed further into eukaryotic, complex life. And then complex life didn’t just stop at ferns and fishes, but evolved into creatures that were aware of their conditions. Matter became conscious of itself.

We don’t think about just how fucking lucky we are to be alive here, now, in this moment.

Simon’s post reminded me of something the poetic physicist Alan Lightman said about where the matter that makes us came from on the EconTalk Podcast. I heard this episode at the beginning of the new year, and I haven’t stopped thinking about how Lightman described the sheer improbability of our existence. If you rewind the story of humanity, you can go all the way back to the Big Bang. So, in essence, you and I are astounding improbabilities 13.8 billion years in the making.

Think about this for a second.

13.8 billion years ago, there was a big bang. Hydrogen and helium, the first elements that were created after the Big Bang, fused together to form the first generation of stars. These stars had a short life and exploded, sprinkling the elements required for life, such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sodium, and magnesium, across the universe.

Then, about 4.6 billion years ago, a giant cloud of dust collapsed under its own gravity. As the cloud began to spin, the core became so hot and dense that it triggered a nuclear fusion, giving birth to our sun. Over a period of time, the remaining particles of dust and ice clumped together, and planets, including Earth, formed.

Then, about 3.5–4 billion years ago, the surface of the Earth had cooled enough for oceans to emerge and for complex chemical reactions to be triggered. We don’t yet know how, but the earliest forms of life emerged around this time. Fast forward billions of years, and we evolved from monkeys to humans. Of those humans, your mom and dad decided to meet and then have sex. Of the hundreds of millions of eggs and sperm released by your parents, one pair joined together to form the creature that’s reading this piece.

“Then, about 3.5–4 billion years ago, the Earth’s surface had cooled enough for oceans to form and set the stage for complex chemical reactions. While we don’t yet know exactly how, the earliest forms of life emerged around this time. Fast forward through millions of years of evolutionary history, Homo sapiens diverged from other primates, leading to the species we now call humans. Of those humans, your mom and dad decided to meet and have sex. Of the hundreds of millions of sperm and the single egg released during that cycle, one pair joined together to form the creature reading this.”

Saying that human life is a freak cosmic accident is like saying water is wet.

I haven’t lived enough to understand what death means or how to even think about it. I know the dictionary meaning of death, but I don’t know what it truly means. I have seen a couple of my grandparents die up close, but I was too young to understand the true gravity of what that meant.


Apart from my grandparents, I’ve had the inordinate privilege of not losing loved ones yet. The closest I came to staring death in the face was during COVID, when both my parents were seriously ill. But even in that moment, I don’t think I had the maturity to understand what was happening or what it meant. When the hospital asked me to sign some waivers, I remember feeling blank. It might be because the stench of death was so thick in the air all around the world, or maybe I have a screw loose in my head.

But after reading Simon’s meditation on a life worth living, I thought about what comes to mind when I think or read about death. I haven’t lived, loved, or lost enough to write about death. But I understand that is something I must grapple with. So whenever I hear wise people say something interesting about death, I make a mental note, and I wanted to share a few of those.

Memento mori and premeditatio malorum

As you may have noticed, I’ve been trying to learn a little about philosophy. Stoicism is one of the philosophies I discovered on this journey. Stoicism originated sometime around the third century BCE in Greece. While I was writing this post, I came across the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. It turns out he’s an expert on all things stoicism and has written several books on it.

In one of the first videos I watched by him, he shared this wicked quote from Epictetus:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”

Epictetus was a slave who got his freedom and became a central figure in Stoicism. This quote gives you an inkling about the way stoics thought about death. I had heard Professor Pigliucci talk more about the stoic approach to death, but I had forgotten it. So I did some googling and found a few things. In this podcast, he beautifully explains how stoics thought about death:

Let me tell you, “memento mori” is again from Latin, and it doesn’t mean “remember you’re immortal,” it means “remember you’re going to die.” Now, when you say that to people, it’s like, “What the hell? No! Why are you telling me? I know that, but I don’t want to think about it.” But in fact, it helps a lot, at least it helps me and helps a lot of people.

So when I was younger, I actually was kind of obsessed with my own death, and not in a good way. I was, you know, the thought was going there often, and it was not a pleasant thought, and sometimes it actually got in the way of me doing things. Since I started practicing Stoicism, little by little, things changed. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t fear death or that, you know, I’m looking forward to it. The hell with that! No, I’m not looking forward to it. I want to live as long as life is possible, as much as it is a healthy life, an active life, one when I can actually do things, right?

But at the same time, it does help me do what the Stoics refer to as the “premeditation on death,” and there are different ways of doing it. My favorite is actually to go to a cemetery from time to time, just on purpose, go to a cemetery. There is one, a really neat, nice one in lower Manhattan, right up by Wall Street, and it’s in the middle of the city. So it’s in the middle of chaos, but it’s an island of peace in there.

And what do you do? You go there from time to time, on purpose, and then you very carefully sort of look around, walk very slowly, pay attention to the names, the dates of people, and so on and so forth, and think about the fact that one of these days, you’re going to join that crowd, that one of these days, it’s going to be you. And then you think, so before that time comes, what do I want to do with the time that I have, right?

So it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, that is, you use a meditation on death to renew your urgency for life, right? So whenever I come out of a cemetery after I’ve left, after having done this kind of meditation, which takes some, you know, as much time as you want, sometimes 10 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever. If it is a large cemetery, you might want to walk around for an hour. It’s a nice way to stroll around anyway.

But every time that I came out of it, I said, “Okay, well, I need to get back to writing. I need to get back to teaching. I need to get back to, you know, interacting with my wife and my daughter, because those are the important things in life for me, right?” And so, it’s a way to renew your enthusiasm for life, to kind of reset things. It’s like, “Oh, I’m aware that that’s gonna happen one of these days. It’s not an ‘if,’ it’s only a matter of when.” So in the meantime, I might as well enjoy and do the best that I can with whatever life I have.

As I understand it, there are two concepts in stoicism called memento mori and premeditatio malorum.

In ancient Rome, whenever military generals achieved great victories, slaves or attendants would whisper “memento mori,” which means remember, you must die. It is an exercise to remind oneself that death is around the corner.

Premeditatio malorum is an exercise in contemplating all the good and bad things that could happen to you, including your own death. It was an exercise for the stoics to prepare themselves for all eventualities so that they weren’t surprised when something happened. They premediated so that they could endure both misfortune and good fortune with equanimity. It was a way for them to prepare themselves for the trials and tribulations of life and not be blindsided.

It’s fine

I watched this brilliant conversation between Ricky Gervais, who’s one of my favorite comedians, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins a while ago. Both Gervais and Dawkins talk about death in various parts of the conversation, but one moment in particular stuck with me:

Richard Wiseman: I think many people in the public see atheists as having this reputation for being a little bit down on the world and a little bit pessimistic. Are you, I mean, we’re living in quite a difficult time at the moment. Are you optimistic? Are you optimistic about the future?

Ricky Gervais: Well, I don’t know. I’m happy. I’ve always been happy. I’ve always tried to get the most out of life. I worked out early on that that was the shortcut. I wanted, I just wanted to be happy. I did that first and then decided how I was going to sort of make a living. Am I optimistic? I mean, I’ve got nothing to fear. I look at this bit like a holiday. We don’t exist for thirteen and a half billion years. Then we exist for 80, 90, 100 years if we’re lucky, and you experience everything. It’s amazing.

I mean, it’s amazing to be alive. The chances of us being here as us, that sperm hitting that egg, is four hundred trillion to one. It’s incredible that we’re here, you know, and then we die, never to exist again, you know. And then some people even get offended by me saying that. They say things like, “You don’t know that. I’ll probably live again.” Someone said on Twitter once to me, “Why don’t you pray just in case there’s a god?” And I said, “Why don’t you put garlic over your door just in case there’s a Dracula?”

[Death] I imagine it’s like the thirteen and a half billion years before we were born and that was fine.

This is similar to what Simon writes. It reminded me of a Seneca quote that I read in Professor Pigliucci’s post:

Whatever existed before us was death. What does it matter whether you cease to be, or never begin? The outcome of either is just this, that you don’t exist.

Who put me here?

In the chapter on existentialism in the book From Socrates to Sartre, the author, Professor T.Z. Lavine, quotes the French polymath Blaise Pascal:

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?

Again, it’s similar to what both Simon and Ricky Gervais say. Making sense of one’s existence is not a modern preoccupation. People have been thinking about it since the dawn of time.

Benevolent evil

The other thing I remembered is a childhood story from the amazing Daniel Kahneman, who passed away recently:

In one experience I remember vividly, there was a rich range of shades. It must have been late 1941 or early 1942. Jews were required to wear the Star of David and to obey a 6 p.m. curfew. I had gone to play with a Christian friend and had stayed too late. I turned my brown sweater inside out to walk the few blocks home. As I was walking down an empty street, I saw a German soldier approaching. He was wearing the black uniform that I had been told to fear more than others – the one worn by specially recruited SS soldiers.

As I came closer to him, trying to walk fast, I noticed that he was looking at me intently. Then he beckoned me over, picked me up, and hugged me. I was terrified that he would notice the star inside my sweater. He was speaking to me with great emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet, showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people were endlessly complicated and interesting.

It’s a vivid example of how death can sneak up on us.

What’s the point of it all?

I watched this haunting yet profound and beautiful short documentary about philosopher Herbert Fingarette, who passed away in 2018. It was shot by Fingarette’s grandson, Andrew Hasse.

In the video, the wizened philosopher grapples with existential themes like the meaning of life, love, loss, and waiting for death. What’s noteworthy is that Fingarette had written a book on death in which he said it’s irrational to be afraid of death because you’re not going to suffer. In the video, he says that he was wrong. I guess his perspective changed since he was so close to death.

The video captures the difficulty of accepting death, even if you are a philosopher who’s written a book on the topic.

Go and live a life worth living.

See you next week.