I recently wrote a piece looking at 10 key areas of careers development I felt were not often covered in careers education programs. The one of these that maybe turned the most heads was the inclusion of death. This piece is my attempt to articulate how I feel careers and death might fit together and why it is important for career professionals to be aware of this and to discuss it.
I have heard it said that 100 years ago it was taboo in polite conversation to mention sex, now it could be said it is taboo to talk about death. Go around talking about death and it assumed you are unkind, unwell, some extravagant sort of religious fanatic or some combination of the above. Maybe I’m wrong but try it out, next time you are out with colleges after work or round at friends for dinner bring up the topic of death and see what level of enthusiasm the topic produces. This is a bit odd because (alongside taxes of course) death is one of life’s certainties. If it is bound to happen surely we should talk about it?
Similarly careers education should surely cover death but I can’t think of much literature about it (please correct me here). Particularly views of careers development that focus on development and narratives should surely cover the one point that will end all development and punctuate every narrative. Similarly with theories that focus on chaos, chance and happenstance surely they would consider the most decisively uncertain event in many people’s lives, death and whatever happens after.
Well I am going to plunge in where angels fear to tread. I have five positions I think people can take towards death on a philosophical level. They cover both secular and religious viewpoints so depending on which of those you tend to view yourself as you’re going to come across the other.
Memorialism is in mostly a secular position that aims to approach death seeing meaning for the individual both before and after death. A classic example of memorialism is the observation of armistice day in the UK and other countries where those who died particularly during the two world wars and in other wars since are remembered. Many of us will be familiar with Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen” the second stanza of which is often read at remembrance day services,
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”
The idea is that though death has happened people can live on in the memory of others. Because the dead continue to be remembered, to be in the conscious of the living they continue to be significant and so in this sense continue to exist.
The shape that this gives to our careers is to encourage us to do something in our lives that is significant enough to be remembered by others. For some this happens in the arena of work but for many it is in friendship and family that we find this sort of significance where we think we will be remembered and live on after we have gone. People who take this view will probably find motivation in significance, either significant relationships where they will be remembered or significant actions where they will gain notoriety.
Summary: Despite death work can still be significant if what we do is remembered by others.
The Carpe Diem view (as I call it) is equally a secular view but differs in that it denies the existence of meaning after we die. In the film the Dead Poets society the character played by Robin Williams sets out to challenge the group of schoolboys under his care to throw off the shackles of conformity and tradition and to seek a life of meaning.
As Robin Williams’ character puts it “we are food for worms”. The claim here is that we should seize the day precisely because it will not last forever. We will not live on (in this view) and so should make the most of the moment, get all we can out of life, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”
The shape that this view gives to a career is to impress upon the individual the importance of the moment. Unlike the memorial position the emphasis is less on gaining significance that lasts but getting as much out of the moment irrespective of the long term. This view is more about not wasting the moment and getting everything you can out of life, not having regrets and achieving everything you want to. While memorial asks where can you find significance the Carpe Diem view asks what do you want to achieve now and what can you get out of life while it lasts.
Summary: Because you will die try to focus on getting everything you can out of life now before it is gone. Only actions done now have significance.
The Absurd view is the final secular view we will look at, unlike the previous two it supposes no significance either before or after death. The idea of the absurd can be illustrated Albert Camus and his essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe. In the greek myth as written by Homer, Sisyphus is punished by the god’s to eternally push a rock up a hill (interesting his crime is to capture and chain Death). When Sisyphus gets the rock to the top of the hill it rolls back down again and he must repeat the process, Sisyphus is trapped in a cycle of unending and pointless labor.
Camus picks up this story and uses it to illustrate the human condition. Camus says that our life is dominated by a hope of tomorrow but tomorrow can only bring us closer to death. People live as this was not the case and that death is not certain. This is the ill of the human condition that we seek meaning when there is none to be found. Camus says we are like Sisyphus in this way and the key moment is when marching back down the hill to start again. Camus says that the crucial step is to imagine Sisyphus as happy, as no longer striving for meaning but instead imagine Sisyphus as happy, content in his state. Sisyphus overcomes his situation not by seeking meaning in it but by accepting there is no meaning.
What I find interesting about this is how central work is to Camus’ view of the absurd. For Camus all work is pointless in the face of death and all we can do is accept it. In many ways this is an anti career. It is the rejection of meaning as a significant category and instead being prepared to believe that work is pointless and meaningless in the face of death and be content with how absurd this makes life. This view would reject both Memorialism and the Carpe Diem approaches as ignoring the fact that we will die and in light of this nothing has significance and all we can do is accept this.
Summary: Because of death there is not point to work, you only stop striving after meaning and be happy with the absurd.
Preparation for Judgement
The other two views of death both approach death from a religious point of view, though not necessarily from a theistic perspective. Betrand Russel famously said “When I die I believe I shall rot.” All of the other views we have proposed so far assume this to some extent and try to come to terms with the idea that after death we will be no more. A common factor in most (to my mind) religious system is that they believe in some form of reckoning after death. In the major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) the focus is on judgement before a personal god. In all three of these religions the individual appears in front of god after death and is either punished or rewarded depending on their deeds. Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism all hold a similar view around incarnation. All of these religions believe in an eternal soul which through successive lives and re-incarnations moves towards a state of karma or nirvana as the soul is re-fined. Your rate of progress depends on your moral performance or your level of enlightenment achieved during life.
In all of these religious views there the life we live now is the basis on which we will be judged and on which basis we will either receive reward or not. Though the different religions differ on a number of points and there is a big divide between the Abrahamic religions that prioritise moral purity and the other religious which prioritise enlightenment for our purposes there is a similar emphasis on the main value on what we do being in terms of it either improving or damaging our chances of a positive life after death.
From a career perspective this view makes career one of many arenas in which someone needs to be morally pure or gain enlightenment. I admit to being more familiar with the Abrahamic religions and less clear on the other three major world religions I have mentioned and so I am not entirely clear what gaining enlightenment at work would involve or if physical work is just a distraction to true enlightenment (maybe someone else can help me out here). The priority of making yourself ready for eternity moves career away from personal satisfaction and prioritises ethical living. What job you choose becomes less important than being pure or being enlightened in whatever position you find yourself.
Summary: Work is an arena for religious observance, the ethical quality of what is done is the most important part of work.
The resurrection view is to my mind a uniquely Christian view. Though Christians adhere to the view of personal judgement as outlined above some strands of Christianity place a particular focus on grace and the resurrection which I think produces a slightly different focus.
Grace – (most) Christians believe that forgiveness if offered to anyone who puts their trust in Jesus death for them. According to the apostle Paul’s writings someone who is trusting Jesus no longer needs fear condemnation when they die (Romans 8:1). So what happens then if your religious system is no longer punctuated by a personal weighing of your moral performance?
Resurrection – The New Testament does not just talk about Jesus rising from the dead as a miracle but as an event that has personal significance for the believer. The Apostle discusses elsewhere how believers walk after Jesus in his resurrection to being with God in heaven (Ephesians 2:6, 4:8, 1 Corinthians 15:20). This means that 1) there is a guaranteed life to come 2) that the life now is the start of the life to come. Death no longer breaks life, the resurrection makes life after death a continuation of life before death in some sense. It takes all of the good bits we have and perfects them. In this view death does not end work as such but life after death is where we continue and perfect what we start on earth. How this is the case is not entirely clear but what this CHristian view is certain of in this view is that because Jesus eternal life is based on his earthly life (his earthly body is resurrected) our eternal lives will also be based in the same, heaven is built on the best bits of this world. For more information on this see J. R. R. Tolkien’s short story Leaf by Niggle or Tim Keller’s work around work.
What this view does is not so much to discount the moral elements of the previous (Christians who hold this view tend to make a lot out of living authentically despite not fearing judgement) but adds to it the focus on doing something worthwhile that carries on into eternity. Using your abilities to do something worthwhile and fulfilling is valid because work now continues in to and is completed in eternity.
Summary: What we do now continues in to eternity and so has value in that it will be part of our resurrection.
Looking through this material has given me a number of thoughts. I think death can focus in on central questions around purpose, value and ethics. Discussing death can focus on where and how we try and find meaning in life. Though potentially not comfortable it can still be a powerful way of discussing how we attempt to find meaning in our career.