Talking About Death (Part 3)
I’ve been somewhat hesitant to write this last piece, mainly because the “problem” lacks the urgency that it had when I first began writing about it. At the time, it was pressing, weighing on me nearly every day; now the pendulum has swung and it’s much less immediate.
The reason, I think, is because in less than a month I’ll be hopping a plane to Europe, to live in a different country, go to a different school, and receive a major injection of Newness and Stimulus. This is the stuff I’m so big on, though I don’t “naturally” seek it; if you ask me to write down my philosophy, “seek out change” would be prominent in the index, despite the fact that I have to stick a cattle-prod in my soft spots to make myself actually engage in it. So: in the short term, at least, my mental chaos is placated.
The real problem, though, is not only untouched, it’s the sort of thing that never goes away.
It amounts to something like this: I’m uncomfortable with death.
Understatement of the millennia, maybe, but there it is. I don’t like that it exists, it grieves me that it happens to people, it nearly destroys me that it happens to everyone, and I can only cope with the fact that it will happen to me via an elaborate system of denial and mental firewalls.
This is obviously not a new problem, and everyone looks at it differently. My take is simple: First, I love and prize people—sentient, living human beings—more than anything else, abstract or concrete. Second, death is the only way that people are ended.
At some point you’ve probably told someone, or had them tell you, that “it’s not the end of the world”—that is, that their current misfortune was no big deal after all. This is a classic way of dealing with unpleasant realities; “there’s other fish in the sea”; “things will get better”; Nagel’s “keep your eyes on what’s in front of you”; and of course, “there’s always tomorrow.” Like most people, I like and use this philosophy; it is, in fact, fairly central to my internal worldview. Life is a racecourse: you can make many decisions, with many results, see many things, take many turns, and you’ll just keep blasting along. That’s the one constant, that whether you’re happy or upset about a result, if you blink twice, it’ll have disappeared into the past.
The one, single exception to this is dying. Only by dying is your narrative ended; the story does not take an upward turn nor a downward one, it ceases to exist. You cannot take an optimistic view; there are no more views. There’s no change in perspective on the matter, given time—you’ve hit the end of all that.
Maybe it’s because I’m a writer that I view things like this. The writer in me sees life as a narrative, and the analyzer in me looks at the largest view of the narrative and realizes that it eventually ends. The humanist in me is just pissed off.
I’ve never been big on dying but I didn’t realize the extent of my unhappiness until last year. Due to a mind-altered episode, which rather abruptly took me out of my usual rhythm, I found myself without the benefit of my daily array of mental defenses; my overload-it-with-stimulus trick, my think-of-something-else trick, my fool-the-brain-with-rhetoric trick, they were all stripped away, and I was left with a very naked realization of reality. It struck me then how terrible the idea of death was. And it was not a pleasant time.
So here I am again, much later. It’s daytime and I’ve got my systems “full on and activated.” I have some interesting stuff coming down the pipe, in my life, and I’m doing okay in a lot of ways. But is the problem—my enormous discontent, fear, anger—still there, dammed up?
Probably. Maybe it will never go away.
There are other problems. Most of those in the category of “stuff bigger than me” also stem from a humanist view; for instance, actual death notwithstanding, the kind of lesser suffering that’s floating around in the world also seems outlandish and unacceptable. And so on. But it’s hard to beat death as a trump card.
I am a resourceful guy, smart enough that I am accustomed to being able to achieve, solve, or obtain any goal that I seriously set my mind and time to. Probably that’s not the case, and it’s often moot because I rarely attack many challenging goals, but in any case it’s something I believe. So it’s impossible for me not to look around and say, “okay, I’ve got decades ahead of me, and whatever resources I can acquire in that time; how can I deal with this?”
For most people the answer is to find a way to live with it. That may be my answer, too, but instinctively, at this date, I cannot help but think that learning to live with it is not an “answer” so much as a bandage. That is to say, dying is bad, malum in se, but because we can’t come up with a way around it, we do the next best thing, which is coping—but that is a distant second. I would liken it to the difference between a police force to deter murder and free burials for all victims. So if, at age 50, I feel comfortable with my eventual demise and those of every living person in the world, I wonder now (because I might not wonder then) whether that will be a true belief, or merely the result of fifty years of R&D in my coping technology.
At the moment, I feel—I feel like I cannot help but feel—that the latter is true, that in no way can death be anything but a negative, that nobody’s story deserves to end, and that any cozy feelings I get to the contrary, whether reasoned, religious, or merely distracted, are merely a practical attempt to appease my subconscious and get better sleep. To think otherwise, on logical rather than practical bases (that is to say, because I actually believe it, not because it would be helpful to believe it) would require such a radical change in my internal makeup that I absolutely can’t fathom it. I do accept its possibility, since indeed anything is possible, and people can change a great deal in their lives—but I can’t fathom it.
If you’ve read this far and concluded that I am living my life in a state of heavily-veiled angst, you may be right; if you see me, try not to look for the telltales, and don’t jostle me lest I spill it. At the moment, at least, it doesn’t bear on my daily life or happiness in any significant way; when it begins to do so again, I’ll address it as a symptom. Meanwhile, I’ll just work on “me,” try to get ready physically, mentally, emotionally—mature to the point where I’m ready and capable of going wherever this takes me. And somewhere along the line, I’ll try and decide what my long-term solution is. Because I’m very, very far from giving up on it.