Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Tuesdays with Mortality

I guess we all assume that we are immortal (until something happens to disabuse us). But as well as this naive assumption, I also grew up believing that death was not the end - that I would live forever, cared for by God. I believed that everything which happened to me was part of His plan, and that however bad it was it would be alright in the end. I believed that I was protected. ... It's pretty mindblowing to really accept that I, my self, am simply the product of a lot of chemical and biological interactions. I'm not sure I've got it yet, and I'm not sure I'm happy with it either (accepting this stuff means accepting that I will die when my body does).

This is part of a longer post which appeared on an agnostic/atheist discussion group.

Truth be told, whether we are believers or not, how we each deal with our own death fills a wide spectrum of emotions. It is often said that “there is no such thing as a drowning atheist”. It may be equally true that there is no such thing as a drowning theist who accepts their own sudden demise with complete confidence in their continued existence. Or, to be more fair about it, there are very few people in either category who have total faith in their own conclusions about their own mortality.

Many reasons are put forward for why people go on believing things which they cognitively understand to be irrational. (In fact, the Great and Powerful Godol Hador of Oz is just discovering this issue in a series of fascinating posts.) Certainly, the mortality issue runs very deeply through our conscious and subconscious motives.

We’re not usually aware of it, but there is a certain part of our mind in which we envision ourselves dangling over the abyss, clinging to a rope. The all powerful voice is saying “Okay, here’s the deal; accept me and I’ll be happy to keep holding the rope. Reject me and, well, there’s no one else here to do the holding.”

So what happens when you do finally give up your idea of afterlife (or reincarnation, or continued consciousness, etc.). It is quite a shock. As the quote from the Atheist forum says, getting there is a process. It’s a little bit like finding out that you have a terminal illness called ‘life’, and you have to go through the stages of grief for yourself. Of course, the well touted ‘Five Stages of Grief’ (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) don’t apply here. For one thing we’re starting after denial has ended (though perhaps one could substitute 'avoidance') and for another thing, there’s no one there to bargain with.

So what is the grief process? It’s different, I’m sure, for everyone. For me, it is tightly wrapped up in the much larger issue of reconstructing a post-theism life purpose (which is the subject of a future post).

I can, however, say a few basic certainties:

- It’s sad. Living forever, in my opinion, would be great. Death sucks.

- Life is far more precious to me as a realist then it ever was for me as a theist. Life is NOT the anteroom, it’s the main event.

- Your thoughts are NOT going to be here after you, so if you want to do something with lasting importance, take action.

And perhaps the simplist truth on the subject:
“Mortality is the price we pay for Life.”


Blogger Big-S Skeptic said...

It’s sad. Living forever, in my opinion, would be great. Death sucks.

What's even sadder is that scientists will someday crack the mystery of aging, and then people will be able to have substantially extended lives. But it won't be in time for us, alas.

It would be interesting to study the history of the "antechamber" idea, the notion that this world is just a crappy sideshow. I wonder if this idea came in from neo-platonic though, since there does not seem to be much evidence of this attitude in the Bible.

May 23, 2006 11:02 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

so if you want to do something with lasting importance, take action.

Of course as Woody Allen once said:
I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.

One of the most fascinating things that I read about the notion of the afterlife is that most people can easily talk about what happens to their "soul" after they die because humans have such a strong sense of identity. Few people can conceptualize a soul existing prior to their body/identity.

May 23, 2006 5:27 PM  
Blogger Jewelsparkler said...

There's a brilliant book by Nancy Farmer (acclaimed author of The Ear, the Eye and the Arm) titled The House of the Scorpion. The reason it is fascinating is because it is written from the point of view of a clone. This clone has the exact same DNA as his sponsor, an extremely wealthy man who rules his entire domain. We think the clone is to grow up to take his place...in truth, the older wealthy man simply wants to harvest organs from him. This may not sound like a fast-paced and thought-provoking read but it truly is. If ever there were a book that would exhibit why one would NOT want to continue forever, this is the book.

There is the typical Tuck Everlasting scenario with which we are presented.

Everything must end and all things must die. I think the motives behind one's inability to greet death are worth thinking about. Do we fear death? Do we simply never allow it an opening? American culture certainly dislikes death- we promote looking younger as opposed to aging gracefully, and believe in fighting death as opposed to accepting it.

I personally am afraid of dying before I have completed my purpose or mission. As an Orthodox Jew, of course, I do believe in a 'next world,' but even if not the idea that I might die without impacting the world or my community in any of the ways that I desire to frightens me. Or of dying before I could fulfill life tasks such as raising a family. Or worse yet, dying and leaving behind young children. I am also afraid of pain. If someone paints a scenario for me and says, "Imagine you were hit by a car," it is the pain I fear, but not necessarily death.

But death alone can be, I believe, a beautiful thing. I certainly would not wish to live forever, and I wouldn't want to be artifically kept alive forever, either. There is a time for everything, even a time to die.

May 23, 2006 10:00 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Life is far more precious to me as a realist then it ever was for me as a theist. Life is NOT the anteroom, it’s the main event

I agree with what Jewel said. As a theist, I am absolutely terrified by death because I know that once I die, I will forver be stuck with the consequences of who I have chosen to be while alive. No more self-improvement, no more accomplishment, no more regrets. Man isn't here to bask in whatever heavenly delights we're getting afterwards. We're here to become great and that ends with death.

Heaven is all very well, but I think that I go with the mishna "Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all of the world to come."

May 23, 2006 11:27 PM  
Blogger bits'n pieces said...

maybe in some way the difference between life on the inside and outside is the difference between living in the here and now and being caught between a revered past and an all-too important future. so we worry about our past lives and about generations to come but how much thought is actually given to the moment? sometimes, i have to wonder if this is what life is really all about.

May 24, 2006 12:11 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


I figure that at least we're better off than people were 100/500/1000 years ago as far as longevity and health is concerned, so that's some comfort.

I do wonder where the "antechamber" idea originated. One of the brilliant things about the Bible is that it does not include much metaphysics (except for creation).


"I was expelled from NYU for cheating on my metaphysics final...I looked into the soul of the guy sitting next to me." WA

It seems that eastern religions tend to embrace the idea of souls which pre-date our lives more than western. I don't know whether it's a cultural or religous issue.

Jewel & Tobie,

When I was religous, I felt the same way - I dreaded death not so much as the ultimate end, but as the deadline for getting my act together. I still have roughly the same instict, and I'm a bit older, so I look back at life with more satisfaction. But, to be honest, if the end is just the end, I'd rather drink from Tuck's spring.

Instead of "DNR" the sign over my bed is going to say "Hey, not so fast."

(This isn't realy true, since there are certainly quality of life and pain issues which I would not want to live through. But I really like being alive.)


I could't agree more. Being present is what it's all about - I just hope that I live long enough to learn how to do it. :)

May 24, 2006 10:42 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

But I really like being alive.

I was around two people when they were dying. What is so incredible is how hard a body will fight to stay alive. In one of the people, the mind was almost completely gone, weeks before, but the body would not give up. The nurse kept saying 'Any minute now', but hours and hours went by...

May 25, 2006 12:25 PM  
Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

I was never terribly concerned about my mortality until I realized there was no where else to go. I actualy wrote about this not long ago, and I think this is one of the most personaly distrubing consequences of realizing that the afterlife sysem is bogus. I, for one, was suddenly seized with an urge to "do it all", accomplish every goal, experience every sensation, revel, succeed,connect, achieve....the adrenaline kept me up to three in the morning....for the record I accomplished nothing :-)

May 28, 2006 1:21 AM  

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