Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Thoughts on death


It's not really an easy topic for me. My reaction to the idea of oblivion, of no longer existing, of there no longer being a me, has always been one of fear. No, not fear. Terror. I avoided thinking about it as a result. But in the last few years I've been trying off and on to work on coming to grips with the idea. With death.

I'm not so sure that I'm succeeding.

I'm going to spend some time going through some of the various philosophies concerning death that I've come across in the time I've spent looking at atheist blogs, and pointing to my objections, and see if anything comes out of that. Maybe organizing all these thoughts into a written form for myself will spark some thought that allows me to accept mortality.

One of the most common ideas I've encountered is an idea that is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain. You can also hear it in some versions of Monty Python's song "Always look on the bright side of life" (at about minute 2:40 in that link, if you just want to hear the line). "We come from nothing, and we go back to nothing. What have we lost? Nothing." or "I wasn't bothered by the several billion years before I was born when I didn't exist, I won't be bothered by the years after I cease existing."

For some reason, this idea not only doesn't bother some atheists, it actually seems to give them some peace. On the other hand, I think there is a great deal lost when someone dies. Consider this analogy: suppose you win a car in a drawing, a brand new, nice car of whatever kind you care to imagine. This car is free to you, with the exception of maintenance and insurance of course, so in a sense it's coming from nothing. But it's yours now! It's all yours, until a month later when a freak mechanical problem causes a semi-truck to lose control and plow into your new car, totaling it beyond repair (we'll stipulate the driver is fine, and the semi probably wasn't damaged much either). Have you lost anything?

Well, it's only been a month in this version, so maybe not. On the other hand, in that month you may have taken the car to a mechanic to get it checked out, and had some minor issue taken care of. You may have gone on a long road trip with a significant other. Perhaps you took it to a track, and had some fun going well over the legal speed limit. Maybe you lovingly hand washed it for the first time, with two coats of wax. Maybe you totally rocked out to tunes on the radio while waiting on a red light, not caring who saw you. There are any number of things that may have happened in that month.

But now, it's gone. You have the memories of course, but memories fade, details are forgotten, and things get fuzzy after a while. Not only that, but you've lost everything that could have been. All the drives, all the back seat sex, all the oil changes, everything. And this is just a car, a mechanical contraption where the only conscious being affected is you. Let's take this out of the mechanical analogy realm.

I'm married. And it's awesome. My life was good before I met the woman that became my wife, but it's been even better since meeting her, dating her, and marrying her. If I had never met her, I would never have experienced such awesomeness, but I wouldn't know what I was missing, so I wouldn't care that I hadn't met her and married her. Now of course, I would absolutely care if, for some reason, she decided to leave me (not died, just left), and cut me out of her life completely. Should I say "well, it didn't bother me not having her around before I met her, so it shouldn't bother me now"?  Should she? I don't think so.

Now, obviously that analogy doesn't work perfectly compared to death. In death, the dead have no consciousness with which to care, while in this case, she and I continue to live and feel. But the point here is that something is lost. And it's that loss that bothers me. It's that loss that I care about, both in the abstract (mortality in general), and in the specific (actual individuals dying, like my wife, or me, or you).

It bothers me that when someone dies, everything they are, were, or could be is lost -- forever. All that's left are fading memories of the living, and maybe some changes to the world that they were able to cause before dying. And while the effects we have on the world are not nothing, by any measure, that person is gone.


Now, Greta Christina has a post Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God in which she points out that death is a part of change, and everything changes. We can't experience life without change. And she's right. We can't get to Point B without leaving Point A. We can't reach 5pm in the afternoon without first saying "hello" to 4pm in the afternoon (or maybe not, because fuck 4pm, the bastard). This seems to me a trivial point however, as when we're dead we don't experience change anymore. We experience nothing. Not nothingness, but nothing.

When I wish that people didn't die, I'm not seeking stagnation. It's that entire experience of life, the universe, and everything that I want to see continue. It's that entire experience that an individual loses when they die. And I am not certain that death is a change that is necessary for us to experience life.

In that same post, she also says
Imagine, for a moment, stepping away from time, the way you’d step back from a physical place, to get a better perspective on it. Imagine being outside of time, looking at all of it as a whole — history, the present, the future — the way the astronauts stepped back from the Earth and saw it whole.
Keep that image in your mind. Like a timeline in a history class, but going infinitely forward and infinitely back. And now think of a life, a segment of that timeline, one that starts in, say, 1961, and ends in, say, 2037. Does that life go away when 2037 turns into 2038? Do the years 1961 through 2037 disappear from time simply because we move on from them and into a new time, any more than Chicago disappears when we leave it behind and go to California?
She says it doesn't, I say I don't know, and I'm not sure it matters. As she pointed out earlier, everything changes. We don't experience time in the fashion she describes. We experience time as change, as she pointed out already. Even if her view of time is true and accurate in any sort of real or "just" philosophical manner, the fact that our segment is so short, so limited, is just . . . depressing. I want to experience the rest of the timeline.

It's strange. In some ways, I'm content with how my life has turned out, such that if I died at this keyboard right now, it would be ok. I've made the lives of some people better, helped bring laughter and happiness to some people, and generally, on net, I think I've more good than bad. Hopefully. My wife has her boyfriend, friends, a strong family, and a great deal of inner strength that would help her deal with my death. I can't think of a single friend or family member that wouldn't be able to deal, somehow, with me dying.

And I think I could probably --though I'm less certain here-- deal with her death, or the death of other friends and family. But I would hate it. I would hate the absence, complete and entire, of a person that I cared about deeply. There would be my memories, the keepsakes, photos, and whatnot, but those things are not the person. Not even close.

(and when it comes down to it, my memory sucks; I don't even have clear memories of my wedding day, one of the best days of my life)

And content with my life or not, I still fear death. I've been wrapping it up in all these philosophical ramblings, but it's so damn visceral. I have found nothing about it that I can be comfortable with, nothing to make me think it's not so bad, or not terrifying. It's frustrating.

..... Fuck death. Just . . . fuck it. I don't know.

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