(A version of this appeared on the Albany Times-Union’s “Faith & Values” page, June 21)
America’s deaths are projected to rise (baby boomers being mortal) from 2.59 million in 2010 to 4.25 million in 2050. That could include you (or, worse, me). And while best-selling books claim to prove Heaven’s reality, even most believers aren’t eager to depart.
I heard a philosopher on the radio recently calling fear of death irrational. Human brains have no way to mentally model nonexistence; and he analogized one’s life to what’s between the covers of a book, saying that Long John Silver doesn’t fear what happens when Treasure Island reaches its final page.
“That makes no sense,” my wife remarked.
I agreed. Philosophers going back to Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius (whom I’ve written about) have similarly struggled to persuade us – or, really, themselves – that death is nothing, basically because one won’t be around to experience being dead. But we understand what ending a life means. The radio philosopher’s analogy was silly because Long John Silver is a fictional construct with no consciousness.
Death is loss – complete and total. That one won’t suffer afterwards – as one grieves the loss of a dollar, or a beloved – may be a small comfort, but very small. Indeed, I think most of us would prefer if posthumousness could somehow be suffered. At least that would be something. Better than nothingness.
My cat, not knowing he’ll die, is unafraid. My knowledge is both a blessing and a curse, but surely more of a blessing. Ignorance may be a sort of bliss, but I prefer an authentic life, grounded in reality. That includes the reality of death. Accepting this is painful, yes, but it’s part of being alive in the fullest sense; looking life squarely in the eye.
Fear is healthy insofar as it alerts us to dangers and motivates preparation and avoidance. But while of course it makes sense to act to postpone death, in the end it comes, and fearing the inevitable is useless. However, our thinking about mortality includes more than simple fear. While the radio philosopher was right at least that we can’t wrap our heads around the concept of nonexistence, what one does fully understand the loss of everything one values. That anticipatory regret is not at all irrational.
We must figure out how to live with it. And it does have one beneficial aspect, of putting other anxieties in perspective. The same radio program also featured a man with acute stage fright, a folk singer. But why obsess about appearing in public (what’s the worst that could happen?) when Death is on your dance card? If you can live with that, no lesser fear should terrify you.
Moreover, its being limited makes life all the more precious. And I don’t allow knowing it will end subvert my pleasure in living it. Rather than morbid contemplation of what being dead will be like, I prefer to focus instead on what being alive is like (that itself being enough of a puzzle, as I’ve written). Rather than seeing death as a theft, I see my life as a gift. I don’t take my existence for granted; au contraire, there was no cosmic necessity for it, and I consider it almost miraculous.
To crave more of it may be natural, yet foolish if that corrodes what one does have. As Richard Dawkins has said, let go the impossible wish for another life, and live the one you’ve got.