What is the point of it all?

I subscribe to Aeon digital magazine – an online magazine of ideas, philosophy and culture. A recent video bearing the title ‘An ageing philosopher returns to the essential question: ‘What is the point of it all?’ caught my attention. The ageing philosopher in question is Herbert Fingarette, who died at the end of last year, at the age of 97.

This is the link to the video: https://aeon.co/videos/an-ageing-philosopher-returns-to-the-essential-question-what-is-the-point-of-it-all  (18 mins)

In this film, recorded in the last months of his life, Herbert Fingarette reflects on his life and what it means to be 97, to outlive a deeply loved wife by seven years, to know that what you can now do (after a long and successful career as a professor of philosophy and author) is increasingly limited, and to accept that death is near.

For me this is a moving film, sad and concerning, but also uplifting.

It was sad to see how very much he still missed his wife, being moved to tears on listening to music that they had both enjoyed together. I was struck by his description of her as ‘absent present’. ‘Her absence has been a presence’.

It was also sad to hear him talk about being afraid of death. In 1999 he published a book, Death. Philosophical Soundings, in which he wrote that it is not rational to be afraid of death and that there is no good reason to fear death. But now he doesn’t believe this. He is now (at the time of filming) afraid of death and doesn’t know why.

For me it was concerning to see what I perceived to be the utilitarian nature of care in old age, and I realised that I hope that when my turn comes I will be cared for by someone who loves me, rather than by someone for whom care is a job, however good they are at that job.

But it was uplifting to see a 97 year old still interested in life, reading with the support of his computer, listening to music, drawing in pencil and pastels, and still moving about his house unaided and surrounded by his own possessions. And most importantly, still learning. All his life until now, at the age of 97, he has not appreciated the beauty of the trees in his back garden. Now he says, ‘Seeing the trees is a transcendent experience’. At the age of 97 this is a new experience, which connects him to life.

It’s not surprising that so near the end of his life he is still asking ‘What is the point of it all?’ This is the preoccupation of many philosophers. His conclusion was that there is no point. It’s a foolish question. But by his own acknowledgement he had a happy life and more importantly he had experienced what it means to love and be loved. Perhaps that is the point.

3 thoughts on “What is the point of it all?

  1. Bruno Annetta March 7, 2019 / 4:54 am

    To love and be loved … that says it all for me.

  2. Doris Reeves-Lipscomb March 19, 2019 / 5:43 pm

    A thoughtful and touching film, Jenny. My mother–married, 84 years of age, not aligned with church or faith, with two daughters close by–and I talk about death quite often. She brings it up with me and others close to her. She says she feels she is disengaging from life and sees her death approaching. She says she is not afraid of death. I accept what she says, letting her lead the conversation because I am not brave nor do I have answers that work any better than what she says or as Mr. Fingarette muses. I would like clarity but don’t seek it. Eventually the demands of daily living divert my mother’s and my attention to other topics. Inside I wonder and fear losing my mother. What happens when we die? Who’s afraid? Who’s not? Why? What is the point of worrying? We are all part of the universe along with the animals, trees, soil, water, sky…whatever happens when we die is the only thing that could happen (yes, an AI perspective) I bow to the mystery and hope it is a transition as smooth as being conceived and then born.

  3. jennymackness March 20, 2019 / 3:49 pm

    Thank you Bruno and Doris for your comments.

    Doris, I think it’s rather wonderful that your mother is talking openly and freely about her approaching death, and it is also wonderful that you have a relationship which allows for this. Your mother must find this very comforting.

    Like you I hope that my death will be a smooth transition, for the whole family’s sake. On reflection I would call my mother’s death a smooth transition even though she had dementia and required a lot of care. Given she had dementia we could not talk to her about it, but before she was diagnosed with dementia I did try and find out about as much about her life and thoughts as I could, and recorded conversations with her. I learned a lot about her that I hadn’t known before, and I’m now very glad that I did that.

    I wish you happy days and more enlightening conversations with your fearless mother, and hope that her transition will also be smooth.


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