Death is unthinkable

There comes a time in the life of each of us when we realize, suddenly understand, that death, which has hitherto been something that happened to others, will one day happen to us as well. In one of my jobs, I had a colleague who was obsessed with death. Its shadow hung over him continually although he was only in his twenties. For him, the realization of a personal death had come while listening to a song on the radio when still very young. It now darkened all his life and gave rise to fits of depression which prevented him from working.

Thinking about death is difficult. If, like me, you believe that death is the end of your existence, the end of consciousness – annihilation, in fact – then even thinking about it is paradoxical: he can we imagine a complete lack of awareness? How can I conceive of my not being?

The first time I thought about this – really thought about it rather than just toying with the concept – I felt very strange. It was not fear but the wonder of meeting an alien concept for which I had no tools, no concepts to help me understand it. By repeatedly meditating on the theme, I have got used to the idea and no longer feel the shock of its strangeness but I still cannot say that I grasp it. I still eludes me.

I can understand why this would drive people to believe at all costs that there must be life after death. If you cannot conceive of not being alive then your only alternative is to conceive of continuing even if in some very different form. In that sense, belief in life after death isn’t so much a belief as a failure to consider other possibilities, an easy way out of the conundrum.

That, of course, does not explain the more pathological notions of life after death, such a hell and eternal punishment for finite sins here on earth. I think these notions arise from other sources, perhaps the sadism that accompanies power, the desire for revenge on those who refuse to accept one’s own footling opinions as being of supreme importance. Death is a fact of life but why one would allow it to colour and influence the precious time we have to learn and enjoy life is beyond me. It is to waste a unique treasure that we shall never have again.

I am not afraid of being dead because I do not believe that death is anything. It is complete nothing, neither to be feared nor rejoiced in, except possibly as a release from suffering in life. The accessories of death do, of course, worry me: becoming old, losing mobility, falling sick, experiencing the coming of death. For these are things, realities which we can experience and suffer, unlike death itself which is the ultimate anaesthetic.

In a strange way, the thought of my death amuses me. If I could be aware of it – which I cannot – I might ask myself what all the fuss was about, all the work, the struggle, the desire, the ambition, the disappointments. It would seem rather funny, as if some cosmic joker at my elbow were saying “Gotcha! Had you going there for a while, didn’t I?” The cosmic joker (who is, of course, but a figment of my imagination and therefore a facet of myself) knows full well that life provided positive things as well: love, happiness, value and meaning, things to hold dear into eternity, supposing we had the consciousness to hold them.

Religious folk say “Life this day as though it were your last.” How depressing; how anti-life. I say “Life this day as though you were going to live for ever, grasp life today, tomorrow, the next day and all the days you are fortunate enough to have, for they are pure gain, a once-only offer, and we should enjoy them to the hilt.” To limit and curtail life, to shut oneself off or be shut off from it, to render miserable and self-denying what could be joyous and self-fulfilling is in my book the ultimate obscenity.

But let us not dwell on that; rather let us dwell on and participate in that wonder that is life and bring its delight not only to ourselves but also to those around us who are themselves part of that delight.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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10 Responses to Death is unthinkable

  1. athinkingman says:

    Like you, now knowing that death is really the end, has been a kind of envigorating experience – pushing some life back into life.

    As I was reading your piece I was struck by how different death is for each generation, as each generation experiences life and death is a way which is profoundly the same and yet profoundly different. For example, we are able to reflect on death, and publish those reflections to a worldwide audience, in a way which would have been impossible a generation ago. We have a different means of both articulating thoughts about our own deaths and of engaging in the death thoughts of others.

    I suppose that as our lives have in some sense progressed, so too has our deaths. Compared to a death in the Middle Ages (with all the accompanying doubts and terrors, as well as the physical conditions) our own deaths are likely to be more free from terror, if not from pain. Both life, and death are marching on, and arguably getting better all the time.

  2. I know when I was really young I never thought about dying at all. I thought about death from time to time when I was confronted with it – but it was not something I could ever imagine happening to me. It was just the impossibility of imagining that the world could still be there if I were not, that the world had any meaning without my existance, that I could cease to be when surely I was rather more than a few bones and bits of skin.

    When I was 22 I had meningitis. I don’t remember anything much about it. Apparently I nearly died. Sadly I have none of THOSE sort of memories of rising up and looking down on myself – I just lost a week of my life. I was not in a coma or anything, just really ill I suppose. But after that I could imagine death, just nothingness. And whilst meningitis did irreversible damage to my mathematical abilities I think it was a good thing to have happened. Because now I truly have no fear of death itself, or any uncertainty about it. Disappearing from the world, from yourself, from being, is OK.

    But I do of course fear pain and suffering and the illnesses which are often a precursor to death.

    It always struck me when doing family history that previous generations must have been much more at ease with the inevitability of death – so many children were lost to sickness, people died younger and at home.

    It is just hard to remember when you get bogged down in everyday life, with its routines and chores, that every second of life is precious and that we should make the most of it all. I waste so much of my life in needless worrying and pondering.

  3. SilverTiger says:

    To athinkingman: Life and death are objective realities but, as with all objective realities, when we think of them, we use symbols which we manipulate and infuse with all kinds of meanings. Thus it is the Medieval death, Victorian death and modern death seem different and are discussed in different terms.

    I think the important thing is the sweeping away of taboos. Death and sex have been taboo subjects for many generations. Nowadays we talk about them freely (some would say too freely where sex is concerned) and this has cleared the air marvellously. It helps clear away the superstitious dread that used to hang about these subjects.

    To Reluctant Blogger: It certainly seems a paradox when you first begin to think that when we die, the world carries on without missing a beat.

    I can understand why some people feel a need to “make their mark” so that their names will be remembered by future generations but I have no such ambition myself. We each make a small difference to the world, whether this is noticed or not and the world we live in today was formed by the numberless dead who went before.

  4. emalyse says:

    I’ve never had much of a fear of death and for whatever reason and adjusted to the prospect at quite an early age. I’ve always been suspicious of those that seek to fund the secret of eternal life as I probably find it hard to believe that somebody is really having such a great time that they’d pay for the prospect of extending the experience indefinitely . Ill health and disability is a different matter . I probably view death as a release from life (for some, a blessed release). If there’s nothing after then I’m hardly going to worry about it. If it all starts all over again and I’m suddenly reborn albeit briefly as a cup of tea then I’ll just have to deal with it in my own sweet way.

  5. baralbion says:

    I am reminded of the quotation attributed to Mark Twain:

    “I do not fear death, in view of the fact that I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

  6. SilverTiger says:

    I can well understand that those for whom life is a burden rather than a pleasure would look forward to death as a relief and even positively seek it. That is why I am in favour of legal euthanasia provided reasonable safeguards are put in place.

    I think it has occurred to many that a human life is merely a brief flash of consciousness between two eternities of non-existence. To some, this makes life a comical accident and to others a treasure of inestimable value. My own attitude is a mixture of both.

  7. Big John says:

    As one who is fast approaching his ‘three score years and ten’ I have always been comforted by an extract from a soldier’s letter home during WWI saying something like … ‘If I went to sleep tonight and did not dream, no one would think that this was anything terrible, and death at it’s worst is only that’. So now I’m off to ‘Carpe diem’.

  8. SilverTiger says:

    The soldier was a wise man. It has always seemed to me unwise to put off enjoying myself until some future time which I cannot guarantee ever to enjoy. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. By the same token, I always put off unpleasant tasks in the hope that they will solve themselves if I wait long enough and this does sometimes work!

    Age is just a number. One should not take it seriously. We are obsessed with it for some strange reason. Ignore it.

  9. baralbion says:

    Here’s a variation on the brain in a vat conjecture. How does any of us know we’re not already dead?

  10. SilverTiger says:

    Is the brain in the vat “alive”? If so, what are our reasons for saying so? Because it is conscious? If consciousness is the only evidence that I am alive (Cogito ergo sum) then I am alive now, even if by some other criterion I am dead.

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