I’ve been thinking about dying. Again.
Regrettably, I must spoil the drama of that opening assertion. I am not planning suicide. I have no known terminal disease (except, of course, life itself). I am not depressed, nor even given to melancholy. I have recent, very expensive medical evidence that I am far healthier than my 76 years would suggest. And, most of all, I love life! It is warm and satisfying, it’s an adventure, a continual experiment, and a daily treasure trove of new and engaging information. I am fortunate beyond belief and I love living!
And it will end. Probably not tomorrow or even next year. But, come on, I’m 76; envisioning another 20 years stretches my imagination. If the universe offers more, I’ll take it if I can happily do so, though I strongly demand my right over my own life.
So why am I thinking about death? The reason is partly my evolution-bestowed big brain, complex enough to consider its non-existence. We are alone in that mixed-blessing among the millions of other species. Another reason is that death is such a fascinating subject it cries out for attention. We all know life, but we know death only secondhand. To me as a secular humanist, there’s no life after death, so my interest is not compelled by thoughts of an afterlife. A Christian reader’s comment on my last post (“God is love?” November 23, 2014) suggested that he and I will find out in only a few years who is right (no doubt with our tickets stamped to different destinations), but I disagree. I expect to get no answer at all. In fact, I expect to know nothing about the event of my death.
I mean that just the way it sounds. You folks may know I am dead, but I won’t. I may experience dying, but I will not experience death. (Woody Allen’s quip, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” may be funny, but also rests on a truth.) My ability to know anything will have come to an abrupt end. In fact, even the possessive pronoun, “my,” will have outlived its usefulness and become suddenly a nonsense word. I won’t have opinions, fun, pain, or taxes . . . and I won’t have a body either because there’ll be no “I” to have anything.
I will not even have a history except that which lives in others, thereby having become part of their histories rather than mine. The previous “I” will have occupied, say, 85 of the 13,800,000,000 years of our home universe. To say that I am insignificant—except to a mere handful of people during an infinitesimal period—is itself a mind-numbing overstatement.
I conclude there to be no afterlife because I find no reason to think there is. Can I be wrong? Of course. But the universe guarantees me no bragging rights since if it turns out I’m right, I’ll never know. Well, wait, I could be a little bit right if I’m wrong, for perhaps there is an afterlife, but not what’s expected. I submit that if there is life after death, it is not likely to be what religious/superstitious people believe it to be. Why? Because there is a nearly infinite number of ways an afterlife could be. Yet for any one Christian, Muslim, or any other believer, the presumed nature of the afterlife takes only one specific form. Christians like to think of an afterlife as described in the New Testament, a dual place of infinite reward and infinite pain overseen, respectively, by Jehovah and Satan. Not only do other religions see it differently, there are an uncountable number of alternate scenarios that no human has yet thought of.
Even if there is something rather than nothing, it is anybody’s guess whether it’s pleasant or painful, whether we know each other again or not, whether it then ends in a second death that might be final or just the next in a series. Moreover, we might not survive death as individuals, but as some de-individualized blend of our erstwhile human spirits, a post-corporeal smoothie. The possibilities are as eternal as the topic. However if you are tempted to dismiss my bizarre musings, I wish to point out that they are no less probable than the afterlife descriptions expressed with great certainty in millions of churches, mosques, and synagogues every week.
The only circumstances about death that we can count on to be real are these: First, it will occur. Second, it can only be confronted while we are alive. I’ve no idea what the experience of death will be like, though I anticipate we will only perceive what immediately precedes it. However, I do know what the experience of contemplating death is, for we all do that even if only by accident or when buying insurance. And like other natural phenomena in our lives, we have a choice as to how to think about it.
I elect to see death in a way that enhancing life, making it more fulfilling and more conscientious in recognizing obligations that come with being one of a community. “Fulfilling” encompasses need-satisfaction, growth in knowing, and pleasure. “Community” engages all forms of sharing life with other people—family, co-workers, neighbors, whole nations, and this globe of over 7 billion companions in the future as well as in the present.
Death is largely unimportant in that consideration except as a thoughtful inquiry. And peculiar as it may sound, consideration of death as a philosophical inquiry is actually fun. Moreover, it is not accidental that the living of life (except in actions like estate preparation to spare others) in no way includes preparation for death unless such preparation is to live as if to live forever, with the predictable knowledge that we won’t even find out we didn’t.
I am comfortable with my eventual death. (I am not, I will admit, comfortable with pain. So death holds no fear for me, but events that might lead to it do.) However, I confess to being less comfortable with the death of others. My life will be better if my wife, my daughters, my granddaughters, their significant others, and a number of close friends die later than I. My wife says she isn’t happy with the idea of my dying first and I believe her. However, that will have to come out the way it comes out.
Quite apart from the fairly simple fact of my own death, then, I have no choice but to face dealing with unpleasant sequencing in the deaths of others. So death in general has not lost its sting for me, just my own. But dealing with the death of others is not a phenomenon of death, but of life, just as the issue of an afterlife is not after life, but in it. After life, there is on this subject neither a view to espouse nor a viewer to espouse it.