How to Live with Death

Even if our odds of dying at any given moment are low, we can’t escape the risks underlying our existence

Photo of a plant drooping in a white pot against a pink background.
Firn / iStock

In 1984, I met a man called Raymond Eric “Bill” Loverseed. Loverseed was a colleague of my father’s at De Havilland Aircraft and a former member of the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows demonstration team. My father logged more than 2,000 air hours as a senior navigator in the Canadian military. As with all course plotters, who just have to sit there while pilots do the flying, he was a keen judge of character. At De Havilland, he had survived a couple of close calls with Loverseed at the controls. “An awfully good pilot,” my father told me on one occasion. “But he took some wild chances.”

Aviators know that every flight entails a risk and every crash is a failure. They also know, however, that there are three kinds of crashes: good crashes, bad crashes, and last crashes.

In 1984, when I met him in London, Loverseed was flying a DHC-5 Buffalo transport plane at the Farnborough Airshow. The highlight was a low pass over the demonstration area, the plane just a couple of metres off the ground. That day, the Hampshire wind backed on him and the plane lost lift suddenly. Loverseed’s airspeed was too low to compensate; the plane stalled and then dropped like a stone. It slammed into the runway and slid to a point a few hundred yards from a crowd of spectators, including me.

That was a good crash: everybody present walked away. I, for one, walked away to get a stiff drink.

Three years later, Loverseed was ferrying a Piper Cherokee from the United States to Britain when he hit a storm off the coast of Newfoundland. The wings of the small plane iced up, and the aircraft plunged almost 3,000 metres, into dense forest, tearing off both wings as it went. Loverseed’s foot was crushed and it was sixteen frigid hours before he was rescued. That was a bad crash.

Then, in 1998, test flying a De Havilland Dash 7 over Devon after taking off from the Channel Island of Guernsey, he developed engine trouble; the aircraft dipped and slammed into a hillside near Bickington. Loverseed was killed, as was another colleague of my father’s, Adam Saunders of Toronto. That was a last crash.

We can never stop accepting the next flight, the next mission. The last crash makes every hour in the air that much sweeter.

An old saying, sometimes attributed to Cicero, goes: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” You may be wondering: What could this mean? Start with what it doesn’t mean. Learning how to die does not mean that philosophy is a kind of nihilistic death cult, a sort of cabal of necronauts with one foot in the grave and the other on a metaphysical banana peel. True, we philosophers are perfectly capable of doubting the existence of rocks and trees or believing that this entire ceremony is a simulation in some alien’s supercomputer. But, for the most part, we live just like other people do—though with more free time and less fashion sense.

A more plausible interpretation of learning how to die is the one held by the Stoic philosophers. Death is the ultimate contingency, the fact we cannot control. We can be smart about how to estimate and even be just about the entailed risks of a mortal existence. We can embrace this nothingness, at the limit, and thus defeat the fear of dying. This then opens up the only immortality known to humans, namely, living on in the memory of others. Which sounds great. But, as Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”

No, I think learning how to die really means living with a sense of urgency and purpose. Only the presence of a deadline can provide this. The added twist is that we don’t know, exactly, when the deadline will fall.

I had been writing about risk for some time when COVID-19 upended the global order. Suddenly, all thoughts of life risk were reordered. We had all considered, whether idly or urgently, according to circumstance, the chances of death that might attend a given choice or activity. You might get struck by a bus while blithely crossing the street, or be gunned down in crossfire during a drug deal gone wrong, or succumb to pilot error and structural weakness as a jetliner plunges into the sea. We had, most of us, or those who could afford it, taken out insurance policies of various kinds to stake an odds-based claim on the uncertain future. Few of us, if we were not extremely ill or soldiers or oil-rig workers or North Pacific fishermen, had considered death to be a daily prospect in need of consideration.

And yet, of course, it was, because it always is. The fact that the odds of these mortal occurrences remain low—lower, we are always told, than drowning in your own bathtub or falling to a broken neck off an aluminum utility ladder—might diminish, but could never eliminate, the element of risk that attends each moment of human existence.

The world of the virus made all of this more vivid and more confused. The slogans that predominated in the early weeks of social distancing and self-isolation—“We’re all in this together” and “The virus doesn’t discriminate”—were belied by uncomfortable realities. The American death toll alone, about a quarter of the global figure, rose to 80,000 in early May, then past 140,000 in July, with some experts predicting as many as 100,000 new cases every day. This was, as of the Fourth of July, more than the combined US fatalities of the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars. At the same time, it was increasingly clear that social and economic fault lines rendered the virus very uneven in distribution. The poor, Black, Latino, aged, and Indigenous sectors of the population were far more vulnerable than other demographic slices were. God forbid you should suffer from an intersection of more than one of those descriptors, since that would drive your expected mortality far higher. Risk is never just a matter of mathematical odds; it is also, and always, a matter of who you happen to be demographically. The former is stark but implacable; the latter is frightening but open to potential partial correction.

That demographic factor is itself a matter of dice rolls—what economists and philosophers call the birthright lottery. Who and where and how you find yourself on this mortal plane is a massive, and massively predictable, governor of life outcomes over time. There will always be outliers, to be sure, but there is a reason that statistics, demographics, and actuarial mathematics have reliable purchase on the messy terrain of human life. It is because they work: they cannot predict individual outcomes, but they can and do crunch large numbers to deliver valid generalizations. These are not laws, even in the provisional natural-science sense, but they remain implacable and predictive. And therefore, necessarily, inescapable.

Another feature of the global pandemic crisis concerned the nature of planning. The most proximate insight about pandemic planning was that there was none. Reacting slowly and after the fact, most governments found themselves in the unenviable position of playing catch-up with a foe that was invisible, ubiquitous, and fickle. As we all have cause to know, the “flatten the curve” strategy adopted by nearly all of these leaders soon began to generate negative economic impacts in the form of job losses, depleted demand, and the systematic ruin of whole sectors, such as entertainment, sports, and restaurants. Retail outlets hung on with curbside pickup and other stopgap measures, but the structural costs of sheltering in place and social distancing were impossible to ignore: downside economic risk coming into play under stark new market conditions. These costs were made worse, in some cases, by the self-serving, boastful, and egomaniacal depredations of president Donald Trump, who single-handedly sowed discord and confusion on a daily basis throughout the spring and summer.

But even Trump could not shoulder the blame for a general failure of leadership all over the world, from China to India to Brazil to Russia. There is an old military adage that speaks to the issue of necessary redundancy in all planning: “Two is one, and one is none.” If you have only one of something, you have nothing. If you have only a single plan, you have no plan at all. Efforts to bolster any pandemic Plan B, C, D, or other contingencies were met with immediate opposition and even howls of protest, especially if those plans entailed potential mortality rates above the already morbid norms emerging by late spring. Yet these alternate plans might, over a longer term, save lives and livelihoods; they might allow a bounce-back in the stricken economy. Where once “experts” predicted a V-shaped recovery—sharp plunge followed by sharp rebound—eventually most fell back to U-shaped recovery models, with the most pessimistic noting the chance of W-shaped (false short-term recovery) or even L-shaped curves. (The latter is not a recovery curve at all, just an admission of permanent value loss.)

Two is one, and one is none. At the very moment when risk seemed more proximate than usual, when almost everyone believed that death was potentially imminent—however falsely, given the distributions of privilege and health care access—there was a cognitive gap in the population as blinkered as any youthful belief in immortality. Paraphrasing the harsh wartime wisdom of soldiers, we should be moved to say this: “This will end. Eventually. But, before it does, a lot more people gotta die.”

The basic question of all human societies has been: Who will live and who will die? Which is why risk management is really about death management—even though we don’t like to say so. The existential baseline drawn beneath those calculations is John Maynard Keynes’s ultimate socioeconomic conclusion: “In the long run, we are all dead.” True enough; but, in the present, we need to be thinking hard about when, why, and how many are dead, not just lurching from reaction to reaction. The virus is neither brutal nor just; it simply is. This is an unplanned challenge, a force of nature. What it portends and achieves is up to us.

The story of risk is a narrative: of despair or hope, of doom or rescue, of wins and losses. The mortal limits are drawn by the physical world, as always. The narrative limits are drawn, indeed really created, by us. That story is about who we are and what we value within the frame of enforced individual and, maybe, collective death.

Meanwhile, we lurch on into our near future, caught between the dilemmatic horns of mass death and economic collapse. Is there any resolution here? We must hope so, but whatever it is will not, and should not, mean a return to what went before. The risks there are only too obvious, including what some, prominently economist Robin Hanson, have called the collective delusion of dream time. This term identifies the seemingly natural but in fact aberrant period during which cheap energy and credit, low birth rates, and an unrivalled sense of entitlement have erected an impregnable fortress of comfort for those living inside, excluding the masses without.

That fortress is not just material. It is also ideological, discursive, and at least purportedly rational. But disease is like risk more generally: it is, in one basic sense, entirely uninterested in human desire, ambition, and pretension. It has no ideology, religion, or inherent cultural biases. “The only thing it wants is targets,” George Mason University computer scientist Adam Elkus wrote of the coronavirus in March.

“It does not think,” he continued, “it does not feel, and it lies totally outside the elaborate social nuances humans have carved out through patterns of communication, representation and discourse. And this, above all else, makes it a lethal adversary for the West. It has exposed how much of Western society . . . is permeated with influential people who have deluded themselves into thinking that their ability to manipulate words, images and sounds gives them the ability to control reality itself.”

And then this: “There were endless attempts early on to compare it to a less threatening entity, the flu or even the common cold. In doing so, institutional actors tried to take something new and uncertain and tie it into a tame preexisting mental model that they preferred. Acknowledging the virus as a creature of fate—of fortuna—would be to admit that it could collapse the elaborate machinery for making narrative and reveal the narrative-makers as utterly impotent.” But the narrative, and its political makers, has proven very resilient. It is our job, as citizens, to fashion a better story, a liberatory one, where this crisis is in fact an opportunity.

So now, trying as best we can while still living through it, and acknowledging all that has occurred since the first days of the pandemic, we must move on to the next staging ground of contingency, through narrow passes of possibility. Advance cautiously and watch for flanking fire or strafing runs—otherwise known as emergent unforeseen risks, the kinds that cut down from the sides or the air. There will be bad weather, bad luck, disease, disaster, and death. But we have no choice except to continue the frontal assault of the present into the future.

Already, in the spring of 2020, it was obvious that the effects of viral infection were being disproportionately suffered by those of low income and nonwhite race. Financial markets and those who benefit from them were recovering. Countries with the means and might to do so were closing their borders more tightly than ever, even as they attempted to corner markets on personal protective equipment and future potential vaccines. The rights of nations once more seemed to shove aside any notion of universal human rights.

Yet there were, at the same time, many signs of hope—not of optimism in the superficial sense, but of the apparently senseless yet basic need for humans to believe that there will always be another chance. Risk and hope go together, sometimes for ill but often enough for good, to make the demonstrably uncaring universe seem, now and then, at least minimally hospitable. What more can we humans ask for or expect?

Danger simply goes on; that’s just what it does, what it always has done. It is at base indiscriminate, inescapable, and incendiary. But its effects are not equitable by a long throw. Only human choice, action, and policy make a danger into a risk. And, with human choice, action, and policy, we are in the realm of the political, because everything is indeed political—including the apparently apolitical threats of viral contagion and painful, lingering death.

Nothing can be solved right here and right now. Even epidemiological experts are drastically divided over both public health measures and private choices about how to negotiate insurmountable hazards. The New York Times surveyed over 500 of them to prove this obvious point “about what risks are worth taking in the age of coronavirus.” The illustration accompanying this exhaustive, and frankly exhausting, tally—yes, I will fly to London; no, I will not fly to Hong Kong—was all you really needed to know: “Well, It Depends,” the image said.

It always depends. It’s always complicated. The best we can do, even while noting the limits of our discursive power over reality, is thoughtfully examine and reflect on our assumptions and ideas about risk.

Adapted from On Risk. Copyright © Mark Kingwell, 2020. Published by Biblioasis. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Mark Kingwell
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.