What is some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke this? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you
The physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.
While an eternal recurrence is only a thought experiment, it forces the question: Am I content with the life I am living? If not, then we probably would rip and claw ourselves at the thought of repeating it over and over again. Quite honestly, good life or not, most people find zero appealing features to living eternally. It is precisely because we are finite creatures that we live with a sense of urgency and purpose. We see people turn 90 years-old or we experience the death of someone close and we our naturally catapulted to the realization, “that will be me some day!” This thought experiment is truly shock therapy for the soul.
My take away is this: the physicality of death destroys us, but the idea of death saves us. No one denies the reality that body’s age, whither and will terminate in death. Our salvation, however, is found in the idea of death. The idea of death serves a perpetual reminder to make the most of our lives. We hit 30 years-old begin assessing and/or establishing our life goals, career, and marriage. We hit 40 years-old and ask, “Okay, am I established in my career? How is my 401k? What does ‘family’ look like for me?” In our 50s and 60s the process shifts from career-focus to experience-focus, and a deeper reflection for one’s life and legacy. While this is an over-generalization, it illustrates the process of how the idea of death shifts are focus, decade after decade.
On the other hand, if death was not a reality then what impetus would we have for making drastic shifts in our lives? Imagine finding yourself at the same forty-hour a week job for a several thousand years; with the same spouse living in the same location for eternity. Or maybe you’d spend eternity bouncing from job to job, spouse to spouse while jet setting across the world every six months – going from fleeting pleasure to fleeting pleasure ad infinitum. With no end in sight, there is no inner voice saying “carpe diem” because the days never end. Thus, it is because we know of our finality that we have the inevitable mid-life crisis that screams out, “What are you doing?! You gotta find happiness now!”