If You Only Live Once, Why Do You Live as You Do?

Gordon Mathews recently published a new book titled After Death Today in the United States, Japan, and China. Fascinated with the idea that all things in life are temporary, he explores the theme of a larger meaning by examining the senses of life and death.

Exploring the theme of life after death

Nick: On this episode, we discuss the subject of life after death, and your latest book. And perhaps I think you mentioned this might be your last book, Life After Death Today in the United States, Japan and China. And this again blew my mind.

And in the book to use your words, you return to this question of a larger meaning of looking at senses of life and death. So I guess my first question to you is, why did you want to explore this theme?

Gordon: Well, in my book on ikigai, people would talk about living for their work, or their family, or their dream. They had these things that really did motivate them in life. But underlying that, all these things vanish. I mean, your work, but at some point, you'll retire now. If you're very lucky, if you're a medical researcher, you keep working till you're 97 and then drop dead in your lab.

Or if you're a physician, the same thing might happen. Family is the same thing, you might live for your children, but your children will eventually leave to live their own lives. Marriage, even if you have a happy marriage, people die. So all of this comes to an end.

And so in that book on ikigai, a question I would ask people is, what do you think happens to you after you die? And now in this book, what may be my last book, I'm not sure. I go back to that question of life after death today and what it means.

Now, my first book was on the United States and Japan. This is the United States, Japan, and China. And I've written this along with a couple of my graduate students, Yang Yang and Miu Ying Kwong, who did the China part of this.

But it is a comparison of senses of life after death in these three different societies and what people think happens to them after they die? Many people think nothing happens, but that's part of the whole equation.

Nick: We're going to explore what people think about life after death. And I was wondering, you chose those three ethnographies, simply because you lived in each country?

Gordon: Yeah, well, and that's the simplest reason, I've lived in each country. The United States and Japan are fairly easy for me to do. China too, though, is a place I've written some books about. My Chinese isn't as good as my Japanese, so I wanted to have students do the Chinese part.

But it was quite natural to do it. And by chance these happen to be the world's three biggest economies. And that matters, I suppose, because one question about life after death is, ‘If you only live once, why do you live as you do?’ And that's a big question. People are working really hard in these three societies making the economy grow, but if you're gonna die, and then it's all over. Why? So this question does resonate.

Nick: It certainly does if you frame it like that.