The end and the beginning

When we reflect, we take a stance to our lives as a whole; as a whole, a life has a beginning — and an end. There are things that don't have a beginning and an end: circles, the universe perhaps, and the boundless possibilities of human freedom. But your life, as a whole, has a beginning and an end.
Contrary to first appearance, the relevant beginning and end of a life don't have to be very definite. Let's start with the beginning: when does your life in the relevant sense start? That's difficult to pinpoint: is it the moment of your birth? Or your conception? Some time in between? Most would agree today that our existence as a conscious being sets in at some time between our conception and our birth, but only somewhat after our biological existence begins we become a person, with an awareness of our surroundings and a capacity to interact with our environment. Even then it will take some time until we are sufficiently capable to make our own decisions, and that is a capacity which we reach at different stages in our early lives with respect to different sorts of decisions.
For formal and official purposes there is the notion of legally coming of age; but for the question we are concerned with here, that stipulated point in our biographies is too late to count as the starting point. Think of someone who gets interested in music early in her childhood and pesters here parents to buy her an instrument, say: a violin. She starts learning it, receives lessons, enjoys performing at school concerts — and it grows so important that she already knows she wants to do this all her life, discover the endless repertoire, become a professional musician, be on stage every day... Sure enough, for many of us that sort of thing may just a passing fancy, or a mere stage in our youth that phases out later and loses its seriousness and relevance. But that's not so for all people, and many of those who achieve admirable heights in the sports, arts or sciences actually have had this sort of childhood determination. And isn't that an exemplary form of taking charge of your life? At least for cases like these, the relevant beginning of a life as a whole is much earlier than the legally fixed one. And probably the same applies to most of us: the beginning, in the relevant sense, of our life as a whole, the life we choose and shape when we reflect, is when we take it in our own hands. For some, it's a momentous decision at some definite time in their youth; for some, it may be a continuous process; and it can set in much earlier, or somewhat earlier, or for some it might even come later than the legal coming of age. (For some, that moment never comes, and that is certainly a bad thing: for if you never take control of your own life, ever content to be defined by whoever happened to have influenced your ways, if you are simply drifting lazily and indecisively along, that is a life that doesn't justice to your potential as a human being, endowed with reason and the freedom to choose and direct yourself where you're going — however 'normal' and developed you may appear to those around you, it'd be quite as good if you'd never even been around; it would be justified to say that in a certain sense, the sense that we're discussing here, you haven't really lived your life at all.)
The moment when our live ends is not that definite either. In a strictly biological sense, your life ends at your death; however, there can be extreme conditions (such as a coma, or a radical deterioration) which put a stop, often a final one, to everything that matters. What remains then is a continuation of life only in a biological sense: can this count as still being in charge of your life? Doesn't the relevant period in which you are in charge rather end with the loss of your ability to take your own decisions? (Although it is a matter of considerable debate exactly where to draw the line, there is general consensus of a distinction between someone's being a living person and their merely being alive in a biological sense; a human being can lose the ability to function as a person before ceasing to function in a biological sense.) This would not mean your value and your status as a human being, and with them the respect that we pay to any human life as a matter of principle, would be lost. But once again we see that legal rights, moral worth, and ethical relevance do not have to coincide with respect to their timing, and in fact they rarely do.
Thus, paradoxical as it may sound, your life can end before your death (in a strict sense) — or it can extend till after your death (in the same strict sense). Think of lasting works which may outlive you; or examples of heroic action: you might die while you explore the unknown territories (nowadays these might be space, perhaps, the arctic or the deep sea), and still, as long as you reach the goal of your expedition, then your life as a whole has fulfilled the purpose that you chose, whether or not you can yourself enjoy the success, its fruit and recognition by the world and others.
What applies to achievement can apply to failure, too: in the same way in which the whole purpose of your life can be fulfilled after you have died, it can also be defeated. Imagine, for example, you have dedicated all your energy to the single goal of building a school in a poor region. When you're dying after years of effort, and you take a final look at your work, it seems to run now on its own steam; you have left it to capable successors whom you trust; you have recently noticed how it's generally appreciated in the village — and yet, by a cruel turn of fate, just a couple of days after your own peaceful death, a stupid strife destroys the school in a single bomb drop, along with most of the village, and kills or drives away many of those you had hoped would have a better future thanks in part to your contribution.
So, with the end of your life (in the relevant sense) it is just the same as with the beginning: it is not necessarily a definite moment in time, such as your biological death. It can be earlier or later than that; it can even draw out over quite some period. And unsurprisingly, just as with the beginning, there's a lot about your end that cannot be controlled.
A first important step to get a grip on your life as a whole is to accept that there will be an end: that yours is only a limited amount of time, that you will, sooner or later, have to take stock — but also that for all that, it is not generally under your control just when the end will be, or how it comes about. How much time is left to us, how long the period remaining will be between now and the end (whenever it is), is never known to us.
Nobody can choose to be born, of course, but what about your death? Don't we have at least some control about the end? Let's assume that in some cases it makes sense for you to decide that the end should be brought about right now. Whether that means to sacrifice your life for some higher purpose (as countless martyrs have chosen to do, though often in decisions that seem open to question from the point of view of calm reflection) or to end it in the face of some unbearable condition (illness, perhaps, or political repression), it is obviously possible: you can decide to put a stop on your life, and act on that decision.
Of course, you can only stop it in the biological sense. But as we've seen, this is not an exercise of control over the end of your life (in the relevant sense discussed here). Whether your life is successful or not, whether in the end it is a good life or not, is determined only in the end, and that end may not coincide with your biological death. A decision to bring about your biological death about is an act of control within your life (and as such is a decision that must be responsibly taken; it is probably one of the hardest decisions at all to take, for its irreversibility and the enormous significance it will have, not only for yourself, but also for many of those who know and love you). It is not, however, an act of controlling your end. There's no such thing. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.