Sunday, November 07, 2004

On Death and Dying

One of the questions that atheists get asked a lot is the question of how we deal with death. One of the most common replies is that not existing after you die is no different from not existing before you were born. I think that this is a valid answer but I must admit that it also seems a bit glib.

I think that there is something disturbing about the notion of simply not being anymore. Part of that is purely psychosomatic. The brain wants to imagine an impossibility; it wants to imagine what it’s like to be dead. If death is, indeed, simply the terminus of being then there is, quite literally, nothing to imagine, but it tries to do so anyway. What we end up is the notion that we’ll be suspended in an endless darkness. Indeed, many of the early conceptions of the afterlife had precisely that kind of imagery, often coupled with the notion of being in an underworld (after all, dead bodies are often put into the ground, so an underworld is a logical place for the souls of the dead to go).

It is here that the comparison with our state before birth does help. Before we were born, we didn’t experience a grueling wait of billions of years to be born. We simply didn’t exist. As an atheist, I strongly suspect that this is the state of affairs that will follow my life. That, in itself, is a terrible notion. The idea that all of my experiences and memories, all of the beliefs and hopes, all of the things that makes me a unique thing in the universe will perish is tragic. The fact that it’s a common tragedy that is repeated hundreds of thousands of times a day does not diminish its magnitude. Death is unfair and we are right to think of it as life’s greatest enemy.

I have heard arguments that try to frame death as the compliment of life. I can go so far to admit that I would not desire immortality. A life that could not end would ultimately extend beyond the point where every possible state of mind had been experienced. Beyond that point, existence would become a vast redundancy. The quality of life would be reduced in an endless cycles of recapitulations. Even the most joyous of possible lives would become a kind of hell in the long run. The problem with death, then, is not that we die, but that we die too soon.

The average person gets about eight decades worth of life (discounting those who die young). The first decade is spent growing out of childhood. The second is spent growing into adulthood. The last decade is often spent in a state of mental and physical decline. This leaves us with a mere fifty years worth of time to live as qualified adults. In that time, we usually have the chance to pursue one or, maybe, two careers. We may take up a half-dozen hobbies. Most people only ever become experts in a single field with a few prodigies managing expertise in up to three or four subjects. In our lives, most of us only come to be good friends with, at most, a few dozen people.

I like to imagine a world where any person who was so inclined to study every single subject known to humankind to a PhD level of proficiency, where every craft and hobby could be tried and mastered, and where we had the time to know and love every single worthwhile person. Against this supposition, the span of our real lives seems to be paltry indeed.

This grim limit is compounded by the fact that the death isn’t simply a point that we reach. We die by degrees. There’s a profound moment in the animated adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn where an immortal unicorn is transformed into a mortal woman in order to save her from peril. She takes the form of a young, beautiful woman but her reaction is to hold herself and to cry that she can feel herself dying.

She’s right. By the time we become adults, our bodies have already started on the long, slow slide to ultimate failure. As we live, we accumulate irreparable injuries that place accumulating stress about the complex systems that keep us alive. It is, in fact, remarkable that can go as long as we do without dying. Most organisms have life spans that are measured in years, not decades. Our only competitors for longevity, in the animal kingdom, are some species of parrot, great tortoises and, perhaps, certain species of whale. On the scales of the natural world we do live long, just not long enough.

In many senses, we live too long. Outside of accidents, death rarely comes easy. Dying is often a cruel affair as one faculty after another succumbs to failure. Too often we are reduced to a nearly infantile state where we can’t even manage the basic necessities of personal hygiene. We joke about adult diapers because they are a humiliating, awful reality and humor is one of the few tools we have to cope with their terribly necessity. Worst of all is that many of our will have to experience the gradual loss of our very minds, the very things that make us who we are. The notion that our very self can be slowly ground to dust is almost beyond contemplate.

It is for these reasons that I can consistently say that I don’t believe we live long enough while, at the same time, asserting that I am more afraid of living too long than of not living long enough. It is my sincere hope that when death does come for me, I will be one of the lucky few who will be fortunate enough to have a death that is quick, painless and dignified.

I do understand why people consider death to be a challenge for atheists. Indeed, I would admit that, for me at least, death is a challenge. I view it, however, as a challenge to accept the world as it is. I do not want to believe something because it is comfortable and soothing to believe it. I have long asserted that reality has no obligation to match our expectations. The notion of an afterlife free from the depredations of aging and the limitations of premature death is certainly a tempting notion. I do not believe that afterlives are part of the real world, however.

I believe that death is unavoidable. I have confidence that our technologies will continue to improve and that our capacity to put off the end will increase over time. I hope that, eventually, we may be able to grant ourselves to live truly full lives and that, in the meanwhile, we should do what we can to make the process of dying less painful, less frightening and more dignified. I also think, more than anything, that the fact of death should motivate us to cherish our lives, and the lives of those around us, while we have them. Our lives are, quite literally, irreplaceable. Squandering a life seems, to me, to be very nearly an act of criminal irresponsibility. It is for this reason that I think we should strive to live them to the fullest of our abilities and to help our fellow human beings to do the same.

No comments:

what is this?

Tell me when this blog is updated. . .