Death as Life’s Picture Frame

I know it may be an old pastime, but I still enjoy reading a newspaper. I always pay attention to the obituaries section, usually looking for names I know from my parents’ and grandparents’ age. Something struck me the other day, though. I read a name and looked at the age. I did not know the person, but she was my age (just under 40). The circumstances of her death are irrelevant. The reality of her death at such a young age is what stopped me. My first thought was, “But I have so much more life to live…”

The Stoics often discussed death in their writings. I’ve written about death on several occasions as I believe it is something we should all consider while living. Dealing with death adds importance to life, mainly that we squeeze every ounce out of it we can while we are here. After all, Seneca wrote in one of his letters, “it matters how well you live, not how long.”

Corey Anton, a professor and fellow media ecologist/general semanticist/Stoic, wrote, “Death is not simply a future event that will one day come to pass, as if our only possible relation to it is anticipation. Death is right here right now, life’s picture frame. Not knowing that you are going to die would be like being in a dream but remaining unable to realize that you’re dreaming. All living things die, but awareness of death is the pre-condition for life’s meaningfulness.” (Communication Uncovered).

Anton borrowed the idea of death being a picture frame for life from Gregory Bateson and his essay, “A Theory of Play and Fantasy.” Bateson was an anthropologist, psychologist, sociologist, and a whole list of other things. He was acutely aware of how the human mind worked to make our lives tick. In his essay, Bateson suggested that we have psychological frames that help focus our attention on certain data.

He wrote, “The frame around a picture, if we consider this frame as a message intended to order or organize the perception of the viewer, says, ‘Attend to what is within and do not attend to what is outside.’”

Bearing our end in mind offers us a way to focus on the past: what we have done; the present: what we are currently doing; and the future: what we have yet to do. This kind of orientation offers a sense of urgency to life.

Anton and Bateson’s concept of death as a picture frame recalls Seneca’s words: “Life is granted with death as its limitation; it’s the universal endpoint.”

Without a clearly marked end, our lives would have little meaning. It would be like looking at an endless array of activities, people, and information. Bateson suggested that the picture frame “tells the viewer that he is not to use the same sort of thinking in interpreting the picture that he might use in interpreting the wallpaper outside the frame.” 

Without a frame, everything blends together in a meaningless mess. We need the frame to give our lives focus.

As a parting example, Jason Isbell wrote a song called “If We Were Vampires.” The song’s essence is that if the two lovers lived forever, much of their interactions would be less meaningful. Here’s a snippet of the lyrics:

If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone

Death is a fact of life. It is also what gives life meaning. As Marcus Aurelius suggested, picture yourself at the end of your life, looking back on everything you’ve accomplished. Now open your eyes and get started living.

Photo by Joshua Clements, frame by Eric Wüstenhagen.

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Published by The Philosophical Fighter

I love being on a mat. I've trained in Karate, Kickboxing, Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, and Sumo. I currently teach Jiu Jitsu and Judo at Redemption Martial Arts Academy in Tifton, Georgia. I also love to read, write, and philosophize about life.

5 thoughts on “Death as Life’s Picture Frame

  1. “We do not suddenly fall on death, but advance toward it by slight degrees. We die every day. For every day a little of our life is taken from us; even when we are growing, our life is on the wane… It is not the last drop that empties the water-clock, but all that has flowed out already.” – Seneca, Epistles 24.19, 20

  2. This reminded me a bit of Frankl: He who has a why can bear any how. Life can be grim, especially when we think about death, but we can distill meaning out of it nonetheless.

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