here 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.