Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God


I cite this piece a lot on my blog, so I decided I should post it here. It was originally published in the Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 29 #2 (March/April 2005).

HandSo here’s the problem. If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife; or if you believe that the existence of God or an afterlife are fundamentally unanswerable questions; or if you do believe in God or an afterlife but you accept that your belief is just that, a belief, something you believe rather than something you know — if any of that is true for you, then death can be an appalling thing to think about. Not just frightening, not just painful. It can be paralyzing. The fact that your lifespan is an infinitesimally tiny fragment in the life of the universe, and that there is, at the very least, a strong possibility that when you die, you disappear completely and forever, and that in five hundred years nobody will remember you and in five billion years the Earth will be boiled into the sun: this can be a profound and defining truth about your existence that you reflexively repulse, that you flinch away from and refuse to accept or even think about, consistently pushing to the back of your mind whenever it sneaks up, for fear that if you allow it to sit in your mind even for a minute, it will swallow everything else. It can make everything you do, and everything anyone else does, seem meaningless, trivial to the point of absurdity. It can make you feel erased, wipe out joy, make your life seem like ashes in your hands. Those of us who are skeptics and doubters are sometimes dismissive of people who fervently hold beliefs they have no evidence for simply because they find them comforting — but when you’re in the grip of this sort of existential despair, it can be hard to feel like you have anything but that handful of ashes to offer them in exchange.

PeaceBut here’s the thing. I think it’s possible to be an agnostic, or an atheist, or to have religious or spiritual beliefs that you don’t have certainty about, and still feel okay about death. I think there are ways to look at death, ways to experience the death of other people and to contemplate our own, that allow us to feel the value of life without denying the finality of death. I can’t make myself believe in things I don’t actually believe — Heaven, or reincarnation, or a greater divine plan for our lives — simply because believing those things would make death easier to accept. And I don’t think I have to, or that anyone has to. I think there are ways to think about death that are comforting, that give peace and solace, that allow our lives to have meaning and even give us more of that meaning — and that have nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of God, or any kind of afterlife.

TimeHere’s the first thing. The first thing is time, and the fact that we live in it. Our existence and experience are dependent on the passing of time, and on change. No, not dependent — dependent is too weak a word. Time and change are integral to who we are, the foundation of our consciousness, and its warp and weft as well. I can’t imagine what it would mean to be conscious without passing through time and being aware of it. There may be some form of existence outside of time, some plane of being in which change and the passage of time is an illusion, but it certainly isn’t ours.

Willow_treeAnd inherent in change is loss. The passing of time has loss and death woven into it: each new moment kills the moment before it, and its own death is implied in the moment that comes after. There is no way to exist in the world of change without accepting loss, if only the loss of a moment in time: the way the sky looks right now, the motion of the air, the number of birds in the tree outside your window, the temperature, the placement of your body, the position of the people in the street. It’s inherent in the nature of having moments: you never get to have this exact one again.

Waltzing1And a good thing, too. Because all the things that give life joy and meaning — music, conversation, eating, dancing, playing with children, reading, thinking, making love, all of it — are based on time passing, and on change, and on the loss of an infinitude of moments passing through us and then behind us. Without loss and death, we don’t get to have existence. We don’t get to have Shakespeare, or sex, or five-spice chicken, without allowing their existence and our experience of them to come into being and then pass on. We don’t get to listen to Louis Armstrong without letting the E-flat disappear and turn into a G. We don’t get to watch “Groundhog Day” without letting each frame of it pass in front of us for a 24th of a second and then move on. We don’t get to walk in the forest without passing by each tree and letting it fall behind us; we don’t even get to stand still in the forest and gaze at one tree for hours without seeing the wind blow off a leaf, a bird break off a twig for its nest, the clouds moving behind it, each manifestation of the tree dying and a new one taking its place.

IciclesAnd we wouldn’t want to have it if we could. The alternative would be time frozen, a single frame of the film, with nothing to precede it and nothing to come after. I don’t think any of us would want that. And if we don’t want that, if instead we want the world of change, the world of music and talking and sex and whatnot, then it is worth our while to accept, and even love, the loss and the death that make it possible.

Whole_earthHere’s the second thing. 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.

Timeline1Keep 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?

ParisIt does not. The time that you live in will always exist, even after you’ve passed out of it, just like Paris exists before you visit it, and continues to exist after you leave. And the fact that people in the 23rd century will probably never know you were alive… that doesn’t make your life disappear, any more than Paris disappears if your cousin Ethel never sees it. Your segment on that timeline will always have been there. The fact of your death doesn’t make the time that you were alive disappear.

GalaxyAnd it doesn’t make it meaningless. Yes, stepping back and contemplating all of time and space can be daunting, can make you feel tiny and trivial. And that perception isn’t entirely inaccurate. It’s true; the small slice of time that we have is no more important than the infinitude of time that came before we were born, or the infinitude that will follow after we die.

But it’s no less important, either.

Fetus_da_vinciI don’t know what happens when we die. I don’t know if we come back in a different body, or if we get to hover over time and space and view it in all its glory and splendor, or if our souls dissolve into the world-soul the way our bodies dissolve into the ground, or if, as seems very likely, we simply disappear. I have no idea. And I don’t know that it matters. What matters is that we get to be alive. We get to be conscious. We get to be connected with each other, and with the world, and we get to be aware of that connection and to spend a few years mucking about in its possibilities. We get to have a slice of time and space that’s ours. As it happened, we got the slice that has Beatles records and Thai restaurants and AIDS and the Internet. People who came before us got the slice that had horse-drawn carriages and whist and dysentery, or the one that had stone huts and Viking invasions and pigs in the yard. And the people who come after us will get the slice that has, I don’t know, flying cars and soybean pies and identity chips in their brains. But our slice is no less important because it comes when it does, and it’s no less important because we’ll leave it someday. The fact that time will continue after we die does not negate the time that we were alive. We are alive now, and nothing can erase that.

Comments

  1. Buck Fuddy says

    Great article. I think too few people really think through what the consequences would be if their beliefs about life, death and eternity were really true.
    We all are instinctively repelled by death. That’s only natural. I think it’s safe to assume that that revulsion is just one among many mechanisms wired into our brains that tends to motivate us to avoid dying. The fitness consequences should require no elaboration.
    So it’s only natural for people to prefer not to die, but few people think through the consequences of never dying.
    Similarly, some people adopt a philosophy that elevates life to an absolute good and excuses all kinds of horrible behaviors in the name of preserving life or defeating death. The wrongheadedness of this idea was recently evident in the Terry Schiavo case, but it was eloquently illustrated almost 200 years ago by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein.

  2. anti-nonsense says

    I have a very strong fear of death, I have a lot of trouble dealing with the thought of not existing. I rationally relize that I won’t be aware of not existing, so it’s kind of pointless to fear it, but I can’t help it.
    I’m also afraid, perhaps equally of living forever, people say they want to live forever, but they don’t think about what that really means, it means literally without end. I think you’d pretty much inevitably get bored to tears eventually and then you’d WANT to cease to exist. Sooner or later you’d run out of things to learn and do and then you’d be bored.

  3. M says

    anti-nonsense sums my feelings up nicely – I am indeed ‘paralyzed’ at the thought of death, but I’m almost as terrified at the thought of living forever!

  4. Brandon says

    Hi, first comment here. Loved this post, few people seem to really face their fear of nonexistence, instead adopting a philosophy of: “Live in the moment, and try not to think about it.”
    What really drives me crazy thinking about my death is how unimaginable it is. Even your experience of going under general anaesthesia was defined by your “climbing out of the grave”. Without that waking up to define the margins, death seems so unclassifiable and unthinkable.
    “Your segment on that timeline will always have been there. The fact of your death doesn’t make the time that you were alive disappear.”
    Actually this is somewhat debatable. From what I remember from my old metaphysics class, although the majority of philosophers do accept the notion of time as a kind of fourth dimension, with “eternally” existing points along that dimension, there is a theory known as “presentism” that proposes that the past completely ceases to exist once we “pass through it”. According to this theory, the past does not exist in any sense at all, all that exists are memories in the present. If this (decidedly minority) position is true, than death is essentially exactly the same as never being born: even the statement “So and so lived from 1950-2020″ is only true insofar as there are still effects left from their life. Once all the influence on the universe is gone and forgotten, they cannot be said to exist or have existed in any sense whatsoever.

  5. kathryn says

    The thing that helped me to handle fear of death was, after six months of theraphy following my dog’s death, remembering that I had lived 35 years before be was born. I had been alive and happy without him. Time after his death and mine was frightening. Time before birth, both his and mine, was not. But I think my “existance” or “nonexistance” and his before our births are/were probably a lot like our “existance” or “nonexistance” after death.
    It has helped significantly to think of death as a return to pre-birth.

  6. says

    I can’t remember where it came from…probably some book…but I always think that when I die, it’ll be just like before I was born, which wasn’t so bad…

  7. Brian says

    One comment that I read in The God Delusion by Dawkins was the quote that basically went “I was dead for the first few billion years of life on this planet and do not suffer from any ill effects of that now.” I am unsure who orginally said but it is amazingly accurate. At some point in time no one alive today existed and going back to that state should not be any more painful then it was the first time around.

  8. says

    I, too, was comforted when it occurred to me that death would be as I was for the eternity before I was alive, and that seemed to have been okay; or at least I have no memory that it wasn’t. Also comforting in some way is the view of life as a continuous river that forms little eddies here and there, which appear and disappear with the flow, and the river goes on…

  9. says

    I found your post very interesting. I guess we are on opposite poles when it comes to the God question, for I am a devout catholic, though I am open to other beliefs systems, especially Buddhism which has a long history of studying the mind, how it works etc.
    Yes death, it is the big event in all of our lives and I don’t know anyone who does not fear it; both believers in an afterlife and those who do not. Some say they do not fear death, but when saying that I think they are merely observing someone else die when they think of it, it is an experience, a lonely one perhaps, and the last thing that will happen to all of us, so it can’t really be contemplated in any real sense.
    I believe in an after life, though I of course have my doubts, so your post also applies to me as well perhaps as the majority who come to this blog, who seem to be atheist or agnostics.
    We simply have to live each day to the fullest, try to love, and leave the world in a better place. I do that, or try to by allowing God’s love to fill my heart, making me a channel of his love for others. Those without faith have to find another way; in any case, we are all brothers and sister on the road.
    Peace
    Mark

  10. Duy says

    Hi Greta,
    I just remembered to stop by your blog. Very interesting article. When I have more “time” I want to address some of these points, as it seems we’ve been thinking a long time about many of the same things. In particular, this passage: “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? [p] It does not. The time that you live in will always exist, even after you’ve passed out of it, just like Paris exists before you visit it, and continues to exist after you leave.” I’ve always struggled with this paradox (it started with a very nice childhood vacation that had to *end*) and I haven’t been convinced by the analogy to 3-dimensional space. Time, for whatever unfathomable reason, is different – for one thing, you can go back and forth and back and forth to Paris – not so to 1961.

  11. stevie says

    Lately I Have Not Stopped Thinking About Death And Thinking How When I Die There Will Be Nothing Not A Glance Not A Bit Of Emotion Or Thought Not A Word Nothing And It Really Scares Me But Reading This Has Made Me Think It Through Preoperly And Even Though I Will Always Be Scared To Be Confronted With Death I Atleast Have Realised That The Time I Have Been On Earth Has Been Sacred And I Think Good On Those Silly Arguments Or Fights With People And Cherish The Happy Moments !!

  12. reverted says

    I think most of us are not so much afraid of death, as of dying.
    I don’t really fear the eons of time that stretch beyond my death, just as I don’t fear all that preceded my birth.
    But, I’ll admit that I do have some concerns about the transition …
    (At least I won’t have to live with the memory of it. *grin*)
    “Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?”
    -Epicurus, philosopher (c.341-270 BCE)

  13. says

    There was some discussion above about how time is an illusion (a “stubbornly resistant” one according to Einstein), but I wanted to explain in more detail the physics behind it. I have been thinking about death all my life, too much probably, and knowing why physicists say time is an illusion, (and in a very real sense why we have always existed and will always exist) gives me the most comfort.
    Start with special relativity. The speed of light is the same for all observers, no matter what speed that observer is already traveling. This leads to all sorts of interesting things like time dilation. Hundreds of experiments have shown that special relativity is accurate. A real-world example are those GPS units you see in cars nowadays, or go hiking with. GPS wouldn’t work if the relativistic motion of satellites wasn’t taken into account – due to special relativity, time runs slower for moving satellites by 7 microseconds a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but that would result in an error of a number of inches, and would add up every day.
    Now if special relativity is true, then this thing called the Rietdijk-Putnam argument is also true. Basically, every person has something called a “plane of simultaneity”, which are all the places in the universe along with you that are in the same timeframe. So if your brother was an astronaut in a nearby star system, you could imagine him sitting in his spacecraft. He would be doing something, but you didn’t know what, as radio waves would take years to reach him (and the same time going back). Now suppose you looked at his astronaut log when he got back, and found out he was looking home at the Sun at the exact time you were wondering what he was doing. So your plane of simultaneity at that time when you were wondering what he was doing included him looking at the Sun.
    Further imagine that at that same exact time (to you), your sister was flying in an airplane, and she was also wondering what your brother was doing. Because of the speed she was moving, time dilation would mean that to her, your brother would be in a different plane of simultaneity. In this case, he just turned away from the window and was about to push a button.
    Move your brother farther away (or increase the speed your sister was traveling), and the time difference with your brother is more pronounced. It could be a year, or even 1000 years or more. Depending on the direction your sister was going, your brother (to your sister) could be in your past or your future.
    To a bunch of aliens somewhere else in the universe, everything has already happened in your entire life. To some you might be 7 years old, others 14, at some you would have already died. All times are equally real. If you extrapolate this to all particles relative to all other particles in the universe, EVERYTHING has already happened. Actually, everything is happening RIGHT NOW to some other particle in the universe.
    A better way to imagine this is to represent each instant in the universe on the surface of a very thin piece of paper. If you looked at the paper, you could see little tiny galaxies and stuff, like a photograph. Now as each instant of the universe ticks by, another page is added to the top of the previous piece of paper. Eventually the galaxies would spread apart, and stars would twinkle out. In this way the entire universe, through its entire history, would end up looking like a block of paper (a 3-d block). Now, since we all know the universe is 3-d, then by adding each instant of time we would end up with a 4-d block. This 4-d “block universe” is also known as Minkowski “spacetime”, as space and time in the block are treated pretty much the same, and always have to be talked about in conjunction. Everything in the 4-d block has always existed and will always exist. Universe + time = 4-d block.
    This concept of time is really hard to get your mind around, as it is simply a geometrical axis rather than a real thing. You can think of your life as being a movie, where each instant is shown on a separate frame. Our instinct is to imagine the projector shining on one frame at a time, always sweeping forward, and once the light passes that frame no longer exists. That is not the case at all. Rather, there is a light always illuminating every frame of the film. They are all equally real.
    But don’t we experience time as sweeping forward? There isn’t a zillion versions of me, after all. Well, actually, according to the above, there are. You are just one frame in that movie, thinking they are the only frame. All the other frames also think they are the only frame. Rather than thinking of time, you need to think of yourself as not a 3-d person, but a 4-d person existing in all of those frames.
    Once you die, the past frames don’t go away. Time is an illusion, so those frames always existed and will always exist, each with the projector light always shining on them.

  14. Jane says

    I looked up this post after the X reading at Diesel. I hadn’t seen it before but it sounded like something I’d want to read. I’m glad I did. You know, my very young child has just discovered that all people die, at some point, and he keeps grilling me about this — “So one day, you’ll be dead Mommy? And I’ll be dead too?” And I can see in his eyes when I say “yes” that he can’t figure out why I’m not freaking out and screaming, and how this can seem to be ok with me, how it can seem that his eventual death (and my own) are really no big thing. And of course it’s a huge thing, but what the fuck can you do?
    He asks me if there’s anything after death and I always say, “I don’t know,” because I’m an atheist, and because I really don’t know.
    I hate to be the bearer of such bad news to such a sweet, loving little dude. I do sometimes wish I believed in god or an afterlife, but really, it makes no sense to me, and like you, I can’t make myself believe in it.
    Maybe when he’s older he’ll find your article. I hope so.

  15. says

    I can’t imagine of any experiment, physical or even thought experiment, which would even in principle be capable of either proving or disproving “presentism”. My hunch is that it’s in some mathematical sense completely indistinguishable from its negation, because you can take what happens in either case and translate it back and forth with no loss. It looks to me like the “presentism” debate is really just a quibble over notation, and not of any conceivable consequence.
    I could be missing something. I tend to like “not-presentism” as a conceptual handle for modeling things, since “change” is hard to talk about without at least pretending that there “was” something “before”.
    Ah, whatever. I should probably limit how much time I spend on this kind of talk. I should go have ice cream.

  16. Dena says

    I am scared shitless of death. Actually, it’s more precise to say that I am scared of loss. I don’t handle loss well, never have, it goes back, I think, to my mother’s attempted suicide. You would think the fact that it was ATTEMPTED and not SUCCESSFUL would have made the difference; unfortunately, since she is mentally ill and in a constant cycle of stable/unstable, it feels like it is happening all over again every time she has a meltdown. I would like to be comforted about death. The thing that struck me the most about this article is the point about people not wanting to freeze time. DON’T BE SO SURE. People do it all the time. (Botox anyone..?) I’m not all that concerned about my own death. I’m kind of curious about what’s next…

  17. paul Kussmann says

    Excellent discussion.
    After 73 years of life, some very good, some very bad, I do not fear death. My energy will dissipate into the universe (as energy cannot be destroyed) and the “I” cease to exist.
    I don’t look forward to death but treat it as…well…”that’s life!”

  18. Duncan (Benny) McNeill says

    Someone very special to me died 12 months ago. It re-sparked that existential stuff. I have been thinking many of the same things but not coherent or nearly as eloquent.
    I found it comforting.
    Thank you

  19. eden says

    Two quotes:
    Woody ALLEN: “It’s not that i’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
    Unfortunately i can’t remember who said it or the exact words, but essentially it was: “You know how people say that ‘when you are about to die, your life flashes before your eyes’? Well, this is it. This IS your life flashing before your eyes.” You may have to be “older” to understand this second one.
    Thank you for the article and the comments worth reading after it.

  20. DSimon says

    Eden, I think that was from a Terry Pratchett book. A guy dies and meets Death, and says “Before I die, aren’t I supposed to see my life flash before my eyes?”. Death replies (in all caps, as he has to, because he’s Death), YES, YOU DID, IT WAS THE PART RIGHT BEFORE YOU DIED.

  21. Shell says

    …Marry me?
    Seriously, this is one of the most genuinely warm, calmly reasoned, sincerely optimistic, and absolutely empathetic pieces of writing it has ever been my profound joy to read.
    Thank you.
    And you go, girl.
    (@Eden and @DSimon: I think he uses it a couple of times, but to start with I’ve found Death explaining that “PEOPLE’S WHOLE LIVES DO PASS IN FRONT OF THEIR EYES BEFORE THEY DIE. THE PROCESS IS CALLED ‘LIVING’,” in ‘The Last Continent’.)

  22. Richard Duda says

    Bravo. It gave me peace, and that weepy feeling that mixes humility and wonder, awe and some melancholy.
    I have come, at this point in my life, to this philosophy about time: I have the present, and it often delights me, sometimes annoys me, nearly always surprises me, and all other possibilities that I couldn’t even imagine before I was in that ‘now.’ But I also have the past, and I cherish that, because it contains ever more memories, and I like to think that I am building my life so that it has contained mostly pleasurable, memorable moments, people, places, experiences, emotions, thoughts, music, dreams…
    And I hope I will have the future, though I have not the arrogance to expect or demand or even try to know how much of it, or what memories it will hold. I think I am at peace with that.
    I also think I have no better choice about that.

  23. Destrii says

    Hiya,
    Love the blog, Greta, it really brings a spark to my day.
    This piece has been on your blog for ages but I’ve only just stumbled across it, and, can I say, it’s the most beautiful piece I’ve read yet. When I was a kid I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be an atheist, because it basically admits that death is final, right? (It was a kind of primitive Pascal’s Wager in my head at the age of 8.) But it’s things like this which remind me that you can think about death in a non-depressing way without invoking God or eternal life into the bargain. Thanks!

  24. B. D. says

    I just caught up to this in my back and forth reading of your blog. Reading it brought back to mind a long history of dying and death, so I thought a necro-post was not out of order.
    I understand fearing death, I used to myself, and I see it in others. However, having essentially ‘died’ a couple times, I no longer fear it. The first time was what I call “my lucky miracle motorcycle crash.” A dog came running out of a yard to bark at me, as he did every day. This one time, he decided to bark at me from the other side, so he ran out in front of me. I basically used him as a launch ramp for an Evel Knievel stunt. If you want details, ask, I’ll provide them. The relevant point, is that when I came to, and wobbled my weary way up to the trailer-house door, I found out that I had been gone for about 15 minutes or so. Obviously, not dead, but so completely unconscious I might as well have been. My last thought, was ‘Oh god, I hit the dog!’ accompanied by a simultaneous bit of mirth at my almost palindrome. My next thought was “geez, I’m hot… heh, that means I’m alive… can I wiggle my toes? my fingers? Yes. Coughing? Bleeding? *sits up, looks at myself* Guess not. Guess I should go tell them I hit their dog and see if he’s o.k.” In between… was nothing. I was thrown from a bicycle when hit by a car, and had another motorcycle crash. Neither blackout lasted as long, but it was the same. One moment, I was thinking, moving, feeling; the next, I was not.
    Now, dying… well, that’s not another story for me either. Been there, done that, got the scars to prove it. Cancer, combined with acute initial HIV infection, a full-body staph infection with a lymph-node biopsy that abscessed, other assorted infections and reactions. Yeah, it was godawful going through it, I never want to be that sick for that long again, but I’m still here to complain about it ;) .
    Put the 2 together, I’m no longer frightened or worried. It will happen again, and there will be one time I don’t come back out the other side.
    So, what do you do?
    Shortly after I was over the chemo and stabilized on my cocktail, my partner and I bought a house. It needed trees in the yard. Even though (at the time, with the meds I had) we knew I probably wouldn’t live to see them mature… we planted them anyway. They would make the yard more beautiful and complete. Watching them grow, and tending them would make us feel happy and complete. We cleaned weeds out of the deceased former owner’s planting beds, and put in new shrubs and flowers. We did everything we wanted/could to make the house and yard a place of beauty. All the while knowing I probably wouldn’t be there to see it all come to maturity.
    So, what do you do when you know you’re going to die? That you won’t see your trees reach full-growth? You won’t see your yard come into its own?
    Plant trees and flowers anyway. They will make the time before-hand beautiful and complete.
    Afraid of dying and death?
    Plant trees…

  25. prayforrain says

    I think it was Mark Twain who observed….”Endeavour to lead such a life that when you die even the undertaker is sorry”.
    In other words your deeds and words will live on after your physiological death. In this respect you don’t die in an instant, but fade out over time as others’ memory of you fades.

  26. Michele says

    Great article. Death doesn’t scare me as much as the physical deterioration that accompanies aging. I wish I could go from healthy to death without ever knowing what hit me.

  27. Steve Gerrard says

    Having reached my seventy”s and actually reached the brink of death twice I can relate the kind of feelings you get. First was, well thats your lot mate. Good wasn’t it. Next came, shit I have not sorted a few things out yet better get back. Then came the actual,I think I can beat this thing, thought. Once for a cerebral aneurysm second for a blood poisoning thing. Well I admit that medicine and it’s practitioners helped considerably but I had the feeling that if I fought like hell I might get back. Well I did and I’m here and still havn’t sorted everything out. But now I am old enough to reflect on what I’ve done, and it is quite memorable for some ( Pro Artist, picture maker). But the leaving feeling or the, well this is it mate thought, wasn’t that bad. At least it got me away from some of the shit I hate in life. Like to stay a bit longer and see how the plot goes but I’ll never see The End and that is a fact. So I don’t really bother about it. Had a lot
    of fun while it lasted. No after life for me. Who cares. Thats your lot mate, Steve

  28. Steve Gerrard says

    To Michele, well some do go from healthy to death and not know what hit them, but for your own sake revel in the aging bit with it’s deterioration coz you get to not do a lot of crap. Nobody expects too much from you. And if you havn’t reached your lofty goals now you aint gonna. So relax and laugh at all the other poor buggers running around trying to ” make it” Steve

  29. Steve Gerrard says

    To kiralik devremulkeier, you are welcome ,if you were speaking of my specific comments. If you would like to enter into a dialogue with me on this I would be willing. Don’t know if I’m allowed to leave my yahoo but here goes, stevegerrard02

  30. Ray K - Arlington, VA says

    First off, “Thank You” Greta & ALL of you who’ve added your comments. This is my first ‘post’ & I have to say that everyone’s thoughts, perspectives & experiences have added greatly to my individual ‘comfort level’ re. ‘death & dying’.
    While I’ve often laughed (usually with some discomfort) on hearing the line: “Relax, no one gets out of life alive!” … the idea of ceasing to exist ever again still scares the sh*t out of me.
    On the other hand, the idea that my ‘existence/non-existence’ AFTER my death here on earth could be just like, or similar to my ‘existence/non-existence’ BEFORE my birth almost 61 years ago DOES bring me some comfort – but ONLY because I HAVE NO MEMORY OF IT!
    Like many (B.D.’s motorcycle accident [Sep 1, 2010] for example), I no longer remember the pain & trauma I experienced when as a teenager, I was struck in the head by a thrown baseball bat at jr. high school batting practice, suffering a brain concussion as a result. I’ve no memory of the pain I must have felt, nor of the first aid administered, nor of the transit to the hospital, nor even of the following weeks of hospital & at-home recovery. But the accident & injury to my physical person DID occur, nevertheless.
    Similarly, 20 yrs ago, near the end of my active duty military career as a U.S. Navy line officer, I was diagnosed as suffering from a form of epilepsy (cause still unknown) when I began to experience ‘complex-partial’ seizures lasting anywhere from 10-20 mins. I get no warning whatsoever, that is, I ‘see’ no ‘aura’, nor get any sort of ‘tingling’ sensation prior to the seizures.
    All I DO know is that one moment I’m ‘fine’, the next, it’s sometime later when I return to ‘full consciousness’. During the seizures, I apparently stop talking or mumble unintelligibly, sometimes falling to my knees (when jogging, for example) – but I have NEVER remembered either the onset of the seizure nor what occurs ‘during’ them.
    Consequently I don’t fear the seizures themselves for I have no memory of them – and fortunately, thanks to prescription meds, I can, for the most part, live a relatively normal life, frustrating as it may be at times.
    But as others have stated, what REALLY frightens me is the TRANSITION from life to death!
    I’ve watched an increasing number of friends & family, including 4 beloved cats, die – with some having experienced long & incredibly agonizing periods of physical & mental suffering prior to their deaths from cancer & other incurable diseases. The efforts of cure, i.e., mastectomy &/or chemotherapy were (at least to me) FAR more tortuous than their inevitable deaths themselves.
    And while suicide for me is not an option, though I no longer believe in any ‘supreme being’, it remains the ‘process’ of dying that is the most frightening ‘unknown’ for me.
    The only ‘comfort’ I can try to feel is the knowledge that death IS an inevitable ‘fact of life’ (pun intended) for EVERY human being & every other living creature on this planet – and until my own ‘end-time’ comes, I should at least try to do my best to enjoy each moment of each day & night I still have, loving myself, as well as my wife, other relatives & my ‘neighbors’.

  31. Michael B says

    Thanks for sharing that insight Greta.

    Like Mark above, I am a devout catholic, but your insight is relevant and helpful to everyone who doesn’t KNOW (i.e., everyone)

    Best,
    Michael

  32. says

    This article is directly and unambiguously providing immense comfort to friends of mine that are in the process of painfully shedding their faith.

    So I’ll just say, thanks, Greta.

  33. Hazuki says

    Forgive the necropost here…this has been on my mind a lot. I am facing homelessness in a New York winter if things don’t improve fast, and have a very bad feeling that a lot of important economic and social systems are going to collapse messily no matter what we do. Those are bad odds for survival, and I only JUST escaped the Abrahamic religions for good (and I still have the occasional bad day).

    I have never been afraid of death, ever, at least not since very early in childhood. And this is where the fear comes from: it seems entirely too easy, the idea that when you die that’s it, no more pain, no more suffering, no more YOU. I want to believe it, and like anything I want to believe, I am extremely skeptical of it. I never feared death: but as a girl I was raised Catholic and had hellfire and brimstone pounded into me.

    While the Abrahamic religions don’t bother me any longer, the Dharmic ones (Buddhism especially) are harder to dispense with, mostly because they are much more difficult to disprove. Greta, do you have any experience with them, specifically escape from them? They are not nice religions; go read about the myriad of Naraka s (Hells basically), an array which gets larger and more sadistic with every new Mahayana sect. The one thing that can be said for them, admittedly a big one, is that at least they’re not eternal…even over 10 decillion years in Avici is still literally nothing compared to Yahweh’s Hell.

    What do you say to someone like me, Greta? Someone who isn’t scared of death, but terrified by the awful things people come up with for what happens after? I know there’s no evidence, but holy fuck.

  34. Jeffrey Soreff says

    Good post, however

    Time and change are integral to who we are, the foundation of our consciousness, and its warp and weft as well.

    Technically true, but the relevant time scale for human
    experience is the ~300 milliseconds or so that it takes us
    to perceive something. Preserving that process is, in principle,
    compatible with fixing aging, with its time scale of decades.
    Of course, we don’t currently have the biomedical technology
    to fix aging, but it is a finite technical problem, and
    potentially one that will someday be fixed. I am, however,
    not holding my breath for this event…

    And we wouldn’t want to have it if we could. The alternative would be time frozen, a single frame of the film, with nothing to precede it and nothing to come after. I don’t think any of us would want that. And if we don’t want that, if instead we want the world of change, the world of music and talking and sex and whatnot, then it is worth our while to accept, and even love, the loss and the death that make it possible.

    We do, routinely, try to freeze parts of our lives (sometimes
    literally!). I, personally, see nothing wrong with that.
    This is probably one of those areas where different people
    have different preferences. There’s something to be said for
    change, and there’s something to be said for stability,
    for the wish to be secure.
    (from Ursula K Le Guin, Orsinian Tales)

    “Sterility,” she said, “you see, sterility is what I fear, I dread. It is my enemy. I know we have other enemies, but I hate it most, because it makes life less than death. And its allies are horrible: hunger, sickness, deformation, and perversion, and ambition, and the wish to be secure.

    Of these, I’ll take a pass on hunger and sickness,
    re deformation – well, there’s body art, a qualified yay there,
    perversion – a strong yay there, ambition – a qualified yay,
    and re sterility: As a childfree male with a vasectomy, an
    enthusiastic cheer!

  35. Jeffrey Soreff says

    Oops, in retrospect I didn’t quite complete what I should
    have said in my previous comment:
    (The following is a psychological speculation, rather than
    an intellectual argument, which I covered earlier in the
    comments on differing time frames.)
    If I’m reading your essays correctly:
    You are an ambitious writer. You, like I, are childfree.
    You, like I, have an unorthodox sexuality. Do you truly
    not feel the appeal of wanting to be secure, of wanting to
    freeze parts of life in place?

  36. says

    Allow me to add another year to this comment thread:

    Occasionally I remind myself that death isn’t necessarily the end of my story- not in some supernatural sense, but in the very real and powerful sense of being the means by which future generations learn about their past. I think about an archaeologist some hundreds or thousands of years hence digging up my bones and it gives me goosebumps- it makes me want to be buried in a time capsule, surrounded by bits of my own little existence, so that they’ll learn just a little bit more when they discover me. Even in death, even without being around to see it happen, I have the potential to further human understanding.

  37. mnb0 says

    Why should life have meaning? I’m completely comfortable with the idea that it hasn’t, not in an objective way. I can give meaning to my life myself, but that’s subjective.
    So what if I am forgotten in the 26th Century? I won’t be there to regret it. So I won’t be remembered because of my greatness, simply because I’m not great. Tell you what, my many flaws won’t be remembered either. Just like the vast majority of mankind the last thousands of years.
    So the whole circus doesn’t make sense. Well, I better enjoy it then. That’s hard enough a task.

  38. Nothing says

    I can’t imagine any thought that’s more comforting than the thought of death. The only known solution to the life condition. Not that I’d actively pursue death, but it’s not at all unwelcome when it comes.

  39. joeb666 says

    I just discovered this particular blog. I’m quite impressed (it’s nice to branch out from merely reading news and associated comments to reading something more “in-depth”).
    .
    Regarding the first paragraph of the article. My way of dealing with the problem of death:
    .
    I don’t care, frankly. I don’t really care about the fact that I will no longer exist. The only reason why people are averse to nonexistence is because we’ve evolved to think that way. (i.e. I posit that those that do not fear death are less likely to survive long enough to have offspring, thereby reducing the probability that such sentiments will be found in the general population.)
    .
    Or so I tell myself most of the time :-) ). At other times I hope the problem of human aging is solved within my lifetime: I’m 28, so I’m hopeful–I especially hope for a technological singularity-type event.

  40. xiph says

    I see no reason to fear death. I am in a room, with many friends. In the corner is a door. Some of my friends have gone through the door. I shall too. I will not hasten it, but in time I hapily go to see what new adventure awaits me with those already there, and welcome those who come after me.

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