As I slide toward my 50thbirthday, the thought of the end of my life becomes increasingly real, although not incredibly vivid. How I will leave this life is a mystery, but the fact that the day will come is most certain and I don’t think it’s either morbid to contemplate it or practical to deny its eventuality. Sociologists have posited that ours is a “death-denying” society that tends to push the idea of death away so that it is less personal to us. We segregate the dying from the rest of us in nursing homes and hospices so that we can depersonalize death and place it’s effect solely on someone else as if to say, “it’s not me, it’s them.” But, I tend to disagree with that opinion. Ours is a death-defying society and that our attempts to push it aside on to others is a statement that we are mortal, but we choose to overcome it. And, perhaps, in someone else’s lifetime that may be the case, but in mine, it is not. I will die, it is certain and it is eventual.
People, in general, don’t like to hear others say that death is inescapable and they quickly stifle the conversation when the subject of their own mortality arises. They might even say that the whole thing is “morbid” or “sad”, but I wonder why it may be considered so. Is it truly unhealthy to discuss death in anything other than a somber manner? There are certainly cases where we even bring ourselves to laughter like when a comedian explores gallows humor. There is also a trove of content on television and in the cinema where themes of death and dying are addressed ad infinitum, but we tend to separate ourselves from those stories because they are exactly that – fiction. That corpse on the table is not “me”, we think.
This is a perception that is purposely used to ignore the facts. The Buddhists see this for what it is – an illusion. They, like existentialist philosopher, Martin Heidegger, know that death is certain, that we do not know when it will come and it is permanent (well, maybe not the Buddhists). I tend to believe people dance around any discussion about death because of their fear of the unknown. For those with faith, there is an after life, but for those who don’t claim a religion as their own, there is nothingness. But, in both cases, people cling on to their current lives as if it was meant to last forever. It isn’t. All living things die. This is an immutable truth of our universe.
Grieving is a selfish act. Do you mourn the loss of my life or do you mourn the loss in yours? How could you mourn for me if I felt that my life was lived authentically? I fulfilled my wishes, regretted what I could bear and made a positive impact on one or more lives. What more could I possibly ask for? Camus, like other existentialists, knew that life was “absurd” or meaningless, but despite this knowledge, he advocated for us to find our own meaning. The universe doesn’t owe you one and you shouldn’t wait for it to do so, so create your own meaning and that is how you should live. That is called “authenticity”. He called this a “revolt against the absurd”. I would ask that we honor the revolt with fanfare and celebration rather than weep for its end. For me, the revolt was successful if I made you want to weep for me.
I am pretty confident there is no afterlife and this life is all there is. That doesn’t make it meaningless; it makes it precious. Every moment we walk the earth has value beyond comprehension. We can make good or bad choices, both of which have consequences, both of which generate a chain reaction. A single deed can have immeasurable impact. Our morality is based on this knowledge, not on the words of any god or gods. Every day we consciously and subconsciously know that we are affecting well-being in others and ourselves and that is, and always have been, our guide. I lived my life in this manner, although, I realize that along the way I may have hurt a few people. It was never my intent and I’m sorry for that. In fact, unless you are one of the 1-2% of the population that is a psychopath, I believe the same thing of you. I even believe it if you have committed atrocities in the name of religion. American physicist, Steven Weinberg, famously stated, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But, for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” I agree wholeheartedly and it is for that reason that I don’t need an afterlife to convince me to do good things. I do so because it is within my nature, as I believe it is within yours.
I always wondered why I never cried at funerals. At one time in my life, I guessed that it was because I never felt such a close connection to anyone in a way that I would miss them after they were gone. I have found that this just isn’t true. I miss my grandparents and I feel sorrow for the friends I have lost so early in their lives. There were so many more experiences they could have had and so many more lessons to learn. Now, I recognize that I never cried because I understood the finality of our lives. Maybe I couldn’t put it into words before, but age has served me well in that regard. When I smoked cigarettes, people would warn me of the hazards and my response was simply that I could die in a car accident and that would have nothing to do with having a drag. This was certainly true and somewhat advanced for someone in their twenties, but I don’t think I really grasped what I was saying. I was saying that death is imminent. The Buddhists say that we are always one breath away from death. There is no one that can dispute the validity of that claim.
I’ve been told that I was short-sighted with my “car accident” analogy. It was pointed out to me that the manner of your death is but one aspect and that how you die is quite another. The main question here is whether or not you die peacefully or while suffering. Certainly, I would like to die without pain or regret, but if I cannot choose the time or manner of my death, short of committing suicide, then I also cannot choose the environment in which I die. Surely, if I have chosen to smoke cigarettes or do drugs, I am opting for the potential of a painful death, which I can easily eliminate if I had just chosen to stop abusing myself. If I chose to eat better, I would reduce my risk for the possible heart attack that could be a result. This makes complete sense and cannot be ignored.
On my deathbed, should I have one, I will take offense to anyone of any faith to ask if I wish to convert before my last breath. This example of Pascal’s Wager is an insult to me and I want no part of it. Pascal asked, what do we have to lose? My response is my self-respect and dignity. Plus, it actually does not make any sense. With all the various gods out there in the world, how do I know I would actually convert to the correct one? If the Hindus and Buddhists are correct, then I will be reincarnated. If the Christians are right, I will go to hell except for the simple act that I set aside my lifelong held beliefs, my request for certainty and my own sense of logic and reason.
I’m not even sure I want an afterlife. I think this life was quite enough. If the believers of reincarnation are correct, then why would I ever want to be inserted into an animal, insect or another human being? I had my shot at life and, for better or worse, I got to the end. I’m not sure why I deserved another chance or even had it forced upon me. I am totally all right with this one, however it turns out. As for the Abrahamic version of an afterlife, either one in eternal torment or the other in eternal bliss, I don’t think I need or want either of those. Obviously, eternal torment sounds deplorable. But, the one with eternal bliss sounds equally horrific. The price for eternal bliss is that you prostrate yourself before someone who demands your loyalty and subservience for all time. In both cases, someone else is determining the quality of my eternity. I will have to surrender everything I am in the corporeal world to accommodate some divine totalitarian leader. Christopher Hitchens calls the idea of heaven a “celestial North Korea”, with the exception that in North Korea, you can escape it by actually dying. In heaven or hell, there is no escape, no matter how you try.
For the record, I don’t care how my body is disposed of. Try to remember that I will be dead and my ability to make any choice on the matter would be impossible. What I hope you recognize is that the body that was previously controlled by my consciousness if no longer of any use to me. My consciousness has left it. It is no longer mine. I would rather you dispose of it in the cheapest way possible since, at that point, economics really should be your only concern. There doesn’t need to be a marker with my name on it and I have no need to seem immortal through anything that can be classified as “post-self” – the publication of my writings or some other effort to immortalize or lengthen my impact. But, I leave that up to whoever is given the task of seeing to my body’s removal. Again, I will have no say in the matter.
If you have read this, then you may have any one of several reactions, if not a combination of many. You may be saddened that such thoughts have been so heavy on me that I have come to expose them. You may even look at these words and understand them and agree with my thoughts. Perhaps, I will even convince you to change your own opinion on death and dying in a general sense. Whatever path you go down, I want you to know that your reaction has played no role in publishing these thoughts. I only did so because I was contemplating mortality as it relates to me. It was a completely selfish exercise designed to compile my simplest ideas on the topic and to possibly instruct you on how to handle my eventual release from this world. This is not a will, nor is it a testament. This is not an argument with the purpose of changing your opinions or ideas on death. I wrote these words pragmatically and not in a depressed or agitated state.
I do encourage you to not deny death. And, don’t defy it, either. I urge you to accept it and know its certainty. Let those thoughts drive you to live your lives every day as if they were your last and to be full of love and camaraderie. Be authentic despite the meaninglessness of life, but recognize that we are determined to do as we have done. Your will, your essence, is not within your control and neither are your choices, ultimately, but you can ride the wave and allow the unknown causes behind you guide you to the shore. It will not be the sandy beach you wanted to land on, but it will still overlook the ocean.