On Death

Instead of being at the mercy of wild beasts, earthquakes, landslides, and inundations, modern man is battered by the elemental forces of his own psyche. This is the World Power that vastly exceeds all other powers on earth. The Age of Enlightenment, which stripped nature and human institutions of gods, overlooked the God of Terror who dwells in the human soul. Carl Jung.

Death is the one thing we all share. Perhaps it is the only thing we all share. Even Mothers are not universal. It represents the end of everything known to us, and the start of everything unknown. All life is programmed to survive – we wouldn’t be here if we weren’t – and the certainty that we will at some point not exist is like watching the grim reaper slowly getting closer, cutting people off like so many stalks of wheat. First he cuts down our grandparents. But we’re still safe as long as our parents are still alive, right? Then the reaper takes them, and there is no longer a barrier between him and us.

Western religions, especially, have seized on the unknown and the fear. In place of a serious contemplation of what death is, they pander to our fears and give us the best of what we want. They have built a cartoonish heaven that promises us eternal life, spent with our loved ones, in the presence of God. And to increase their power, they try to convince us there’s a hell, where we will suffer the worse of what we fear: eternal pain, fire and brimstone. Of course many faithful take these representations of heaven and hell as allegories, but recent polls of Americans indicate most Christians, at least, take these stories literally.

Like everyone else, I don’t know what happens to us when we die. But at least I don’t pretend that I do. I suspect that when we die, we die. Nothing. Nada. Just like before we were born. As much as I would like to believe in a hereafter, I am not going to throw away my ability to reason and my sense of reality just to give myself some comfort. Does this lack of faith cause me some distress? After all, if the result of my death is nothing, then the result of my life must also be nothing. Have I no greater purpose than my day-to-day pleasures? And if there’s no punishment for sinning, why should I bother living a virtuous life?

I’ve tried to imagine what the experience of death might be like. The closest I’ve come to so far is to try to capture the experience of falling asleep. Of course I suspect your body will be in a fair amount of pain and confusion as the final death approaches. Still, I’ve never been able to actually experience falling asleep. One second your mind is drifting along, then there’s nothing. I’m never consciously aware of the transition. Later on I might dream, but those dreams are quite disconnected from the falling asleep. So do I fear death? Well, the process might not be very much fun, but why fear something we have each experienced thousands of times? Is there any reason to think that the entry to eternal sleep is any different than the entry to nighttime sleep? So there’s nothingness forever? I think so, but since I won’t experience it, why should I be troubled? Is my daily life so wonderful that I’d like to do it forever? Can I even imagine anything that I’d like to do forever? The main thing I’ll miss is not knowing how things come out, how events resolve themselves.

Death, the most dreaded of all evils, is therefore of no concern to us; for while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist.Epicurus.

Why do I at least try to live a virtuous life? In the end, I’m convinced it’s the best way to live. Perhaps my conviction is due to my upbringing; or perhaps, as part of the civilizing process, most of us learn there’s a tacit agreement among us that if I respect your rights, you will return the favor. This sense of the golden rule is the foundation of civil societies. Religions would try to convince you that God, not man, makes the laws that makes societies function. Of course, I would disagree. In the end, I live virtuously for the same reason the faithful do – it is in my best interest. The major difference is that I get whatever rewards I have coming while here on earth, and the believers are convinced they’ll get their rewards later, a zillion times over.

If there’s no point to life, why don’t I just kill myself now and get it over with? For better or worse we’re all programmed to survive, in my opinion by the demands of our natural world. Like most of us, I enjoy the mundane day-to-day activities I now take part in. I also feel an obligation to support and care for my family and friends. And in spite of the ultimate meaningless of my life, I might as well stick around to see how things come out as long as I reasonably can. Would the prospect of an empty life ever lead me to kill myself? Almost certainly not as I am fundamentally a happy guy. An empty life wouldn’t be the problem; unceasing pain might be. I have always tried to not judge others who have done so. I can’t possibly know what their lives were like. In the same way, I don’t know might happen in my own life to make me want to end it. In any event, I don’t believe I would then spend an eternity in hell. I just wouldn’t experience all that I might have.

I’ve sometimes wondered what our world would be like if we could live forever. While that prospect seems enticing, I suspect there’d be some unpleasant realities. If you think there’s conflict among men today, can you imagine what the conflict would be like if some men lived and others died? If there is nothing else common among humanity, at least there’s death. And can you imagine doing anything so wonderful that you’d like to do it forever? And how would we control the population? Would we become a bunch of old farts living together into eternity? In the early “Vampire” books Rice spent quite a bit of time trying to have us understand how a vampire would look at the world, and it certainly did have its down sides.

Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art. Paul Theroux.

In the same way I’d like to be smarter, richer, taller and so on, I’d like to live longer. But the deal we have is the deal we have. And maybe the secret to happiness is to cherish what you have while you have it, and not worry about what else might have been, nor what else might be.

March 2, 2005

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