“No one here gets out alive.”
― Jim Morrison
We are all the result of a long chain of possibilities that stretch back billions of years. We each are the progeny of a single sperm cell which, out of billions making the effort, fertilized a single egg out of thousands and brought us here; carriers of DNA that has been evolving for eons and eons. Such is life on this planet.
At the other end of the spectrum is death. Do you think about it much? I have thought about it my entire life. Not obsessively, and not morbidly, but I think it would be honest to say I do think about it often. Perhaps it was because a First Cousin of mine committed suicide when I was very young and I saw how devastated my father was at hearing the news. Perhaps it’s because we really are surrounded by it and we learn fairly early that it’s our final destination. Maybe everybody thinks about it frequently. I really don’t know because we don’t talk about it that much, except in literature, song, and the occasional self-help or personal awareness book.
In a previous post I wrote about the concept of an afterlife and my belief there’s no such thing. I’ve tried to imagine what such nothingness might be like and, for the life of me, I can’t. At least not in a way that leaves me satisfied I really understand what the total absence of experience might be like. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Mark Twain’s quote about death hints at what it might be like. He said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
After my father’s death in September of 1984, one the many thoughts his absence triggered was the realization virtually all the education, understanding, and wisdom we accumulate over the years almost completely disappears after death. To be sure, there are exceptions; memories, works of art, books and papers, social and philanthropic efforts, etc., but none of these will likely last more than a few millenia. Now, with the benefit of another thirty years of contemplation, I realize there’s a loss that’s at least as profound, and far more personal.
This is the thing that befuddles me the most. As I noted in the previous post I mentioned, above, if I am correct and there’s nothing after death, I have such a hard time contemplating what that means. I agree with Mark Twain’s quote and have used that very same reasoning. Nevertheless, that was before I experienced consciousness and, now that I have, I find it exceedingly difficult to imagine no longer having it. It’s not that I don’t accept it, even gain comfort from the knowledge it really won’t matter to me, as there will be no me to care. It’s just that I find myself trying to imagine that kind of nothingness (or everythingness?) and I fail in the attempt.
Here’s a somewhat silly thought experiment. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, there is such a thing as life after death. Let’s also say it’s possible to come up with a reasonably useful timeframe for the ultimate heat death (thermodynamic equilibrium) of the universe. Some suggest it will be in 10^100 years. That’s an awfully long time. Now, the following may seem a bit trivial, but please bear with me. In my mind, it points out the absurdity of the concept of an afterlife; at least anything that resembles the life we’re living here, on this planet Earth. Assume that, during this time period, I exist corporeally and continue shaving because I don’t care for beards, and once every trillion (that’s 1,000,000,000,000 or 10^12) years — because, although I’m bound to improve with time and practice, we all still lose focus now and again — I cut myself and, as a result, develop a tiny bit of scar tissue with each cut. By the demise of the universe I would have cut myself 10^88 times. I would think the resulting scar tissue would eventually make me unrecognizable.
Alan Watts suggested that belief is stagnant and unyielding to change, whereas faith is open and accepting of what is. I often say I have faith the universe is unfolding just fine no matter what any of us believe. We are such insignificant little tubes of matter, constantly ingesting, inhaling, and absorbing stuff that isn’t us, then exhaling, excreting, and sloughing off that which once was us but is now something else. We exist for a moment so brief as to be virtually non-existent to anything but our pitiful little selves. Calm down and enjoy the ride.