On a bleak autumn night, moonlight peeks from behind the clouds — just enough to illuminate the words “THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED.” Pallid figures draped in decaying flesh emerge from behind the gateway of Grove Street Cemetery, keeping the promise etched in the arch above them. You awake from your nightmare with such a jolt you nearly fall out of your bed, but that’s just the Halloween season for you. You get spooked because death is often on the brain.

The way we jaywalk the treacherous New Haven streets on the daily might suggest we don’t contemplate our mortality very regularly. We’re told this is natural for people our age, but I’m convinced that’s not an accurate description of our mentality. A climate crisis and a global pandemic have made this generation of youth particularly aware of the omnipresent threat of death. But even before our time, wars and natural disasters around the world have always reminded people — irrespective of their age — of the possibility of life’s premature end. Fear of death is as old as life itself, and it is no respecter of youth.

So how should we deal with these existential crises when they assail our thoughts during the witching hour? It’s a trope for a young person to say “YOLO” before acting as if the one life they have is in danger of being cut short by their risky behavior. Some might say this shows a lack of fear of death, but I think it’s an indication of the opposite case. It’s a coping mechanism for the same existential crises faced by those whose fear of death paralyzes them in the face of risk. This approach is just more nihilistic in nature. “If I say I am going to die no matter what, my deadly behavior doesn’t matter. That’s why I shouldn’t give credence to the fear inside me now.” The ostensibly opposite approach, “I can’t risk too much or else I might lose everything that I have worked so hard to achieve — my college acceptance, my summer internship, my intramural pickleball trophy,” yields surprisingly similar results. Either way, the fear of death controls and limits your behavior. You feel obligated to either spite the fear or submit to it, but either way, you’re obligated to behave a certain way. Slaves to our own mortality, we never entertain the idea that life’s finitude makes it worthwhile.

Without death, these pleasures — whether they be our proudest accomplishments or our wildest misadventures — would have no value to us in the first place.The fact that we fear the idea of the undead, eternal life gone wrong, tells us something about ourselves. As much as we might like the idea of prolonging our life indefinitely, we’re also terrified of it. Our subconscious understands that there would come a point in eternity where life would be indistinguishable from death. Life would have no meaning to you anymore, just as if you were deceased. Its scarcity would no longer provide its value. At that point, our life would be just as enjoyable as that of a walking corpse. Because death saves us from this meaningless existence, it is a good thing. Eternal life, however, would eventually feel like its opposite.

The process of dying can be a terrifying and painful prospect — I’m not writing to belittle the very real and valid feeling of dismay this idea evokes. It still physically hurts me to think about my friend, for example, who I almost lost to brain cancer this summer. I was terrified of the pain she would experience if cancer ended her life, the emotional trauma her death would cause her loved ones. A feeling as visceral and earth-shaking as that can’t be quelled by a mere airtight argument. I also don’t think it should be, either. The impermanence of life gives our experiences significance, but the fact that we value these experiences means we’re reluctant to give them up. It’s a paradox, but one that’s necessary to assert that human existence is a meaningful project. 

There is a difference, though, between an emotion and a mindset. There are moments in life when it is appropriate to feel negative emotions toward death. When we feel these emotions, we affirm that the experience of living is a positive thing. However, an entire life characterized by an emotional aversion to death’s importance is evidence of the wrong mindset. We must acknowledge that death gives as much as it takes away. Death breaks our heart when it takes a loved one away from us, but we would never appreciate the time we had with them if it extended forever into the bleak haze of eternity. Acknowledge the reality of your pain, but understand that it is necessary for authentic pleasure. We can still view death in a negative light when the time is right for such a view, but we should also give death its due by appreciating it in equal measure. To live a fulfilling life, must I always limit the possibility of my death to the point I can act as if I’m situationally immune to it? No! In the same way, the inevitability of death should not compel us to throw caution to the wind, as if the continuation of our life amounts to nothing overall. You are free to take risks or play it safe, but you never fully understand this until you acknowledge that death makes that freedom important to you. At that point, your life is no longer controlled by fear. I don’t have the room here to express my views on how you should live your life with this newfound freedom. Suffice it to say, though, that meaning is death’s gift to you. In the good times and the bad, may you always feel those times are important, and, with that in mind, enjoy the gift while it lasts.

ELIJAH BOLES is a Sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at elijah.boles@yale.edu.