The prospect (what a comforting word, so much better than "certainty") of dying can scare me to death.
So I just had to read Julian Barnes' book, "Nothing to Be Frightened Of." Because it's theme is death, and I want to believe that the title is true.
Barnes is a terrific writer. I don't want to summarize some favorite quotations from his book. I want to share them as wonderfully written.
So, here they are. Enjoy.
I don't believe in God, but I miss Him.
"What's all this about death, by the way?" she continued. I explained that I didn't like the idea of it.
Hadn't Camus said that the proper response to life's meaninglessness was to invent rules for the game, as we had done with football?
And here is the bet [Pascal's] made to sound almost not like a bet: "Go on, believe! It does no harm." ... But there are times, probably, when "it does no harm"-- except for not being true, which some might find irreducible, unnegotiable harm.
If I called myself an atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn't because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance.
Adulthood brings approximation, fluidity, and doubt; and we keep the doubt at bay by retelling that familiar story, with pauses and periods of a calculated effect, pretending that the solidity of narrative is a proof of truth.
But Montaigne is a compendious writer, and if this argument fails to convince, he has many others. For instance: if you have lived well, used life to the full, then you will be happy to let it go; whereas if you have misused life and found it miserable, then you will not regret its passing. (A proposition which seems to me entirely reversible: those in the first category might want their happy lives to continue indefinitely, those in the second might hope for a change of luck.) Or: if you've truly lived for a single day, in the fullest sense, then you've seen everything. (No!) Well, then, if you've lived like that for a whole year, you've seen everything. (Still no.) Anyway, you should make room on earth for others, just as others have made room for you. (Yes, but I didn't ask them to.) And why complain of being taken, when all are taken? Think of how many others will die on the same day as you. (True, and some of them will be as pissed off as I am about it.) Further, and finally, what exactly are you asking for when you complain against death? Do you want an immortality spent on this earth, given the terms and conditions currently applicable? (I see the argument, but how about a bit of immortality? Half? OK, I'll settle for a quarter.)
You may have your own personal idea of God, but does God have His own personal idea of you? Because that's what matters. Whether He's an old man with a white beard sitting in the sky, or a life force, or a disinterested prime mover, or a clockmaker, or a woman, or a nebulous moral force, or Nothing At All, what counts is what He, She, It, or Nothing thinks of you rather than you of them. The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque. It also doesn't matter whether God is just or benevolent or even observant -- of which there seems startlingly little proof -- only that He exists.
What will it be like when Christianity joins the list of dead religions, and is taught in universities as part of the folklore syllabus; when blasphemy becomes not legal or illegal but simply impossible?
God is dead, and without Him human beings can at last get off their knees and assume their full height; and yet this height turns out to be quite dwarfish.
Perhaps the most important divide is less between the religious and the irreligious as between those who fear death and those who don't. We fall thereby into four categories, and it's clear which two regard themselves as superior: those who do not fear death because they have faith, and those who do not fear death despite having no faith. These groups take the moral high ground. In third place come those who, despite having faith, cannot rid themselves of the old, visceral, rational fear. And then, out of the medals, below the salt, up shit creek, come those of us who fear death and have no faith.
I would want my afterlife, if one's on offer, to be an improvement -- preferably a substantial one -- on its terrestrial predecessor. I can just about imagine slopping around half-unawares in some gooey molecular remix, but I can't see that this has any advantage over complete extinction. Why have hopes, even timid ones, for such a state?
My brother does not fear extinction. "I say that confidently, and not just because it would be irrational to have such a fear" (sorry -- interruption -- irrational? IRRATIONAL? It's the most rational thing in the world -- how can reason not reasonably detest and fear the end of reason?).
Religion tends to authoritarianism as capitalism tends to monopoly.
I wonder if we can somehow farewell ourselves in advance. Can we lose, or at least thin, this resilient sense of specialness until there is less of it to disappear, less of it to miss?
People say of death, "There's nothing to be frightened of." They say it quickly, casually. Now let's say it again, slowly, with re-emphasis. "There's NOTHING to be frightened of." Jules Renard: "The word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is the word 'nothing.'"
As a young man, I was terrified of flying. The book I would choose to read on a plane would be something I felt appropriate to have found on my corpse.
I think my sense of death -- which appears exaggerated to some of my friends -- is quite proportionate. For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out for ever -- including the jug -- there is no context to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave.
Theorists of mind and matter may tell me that my death is, if not exactly an illusion at least the loss of something more inchoate and less personally marked than I pretend and desire it to be; but I doubt that this is how it will feel to me when the time comes.
I have always mistrusted the idea that old age brings serenity, suspecting that many of the old were just as emotionally tormented as the young, yet socially forbidden to acknowledge it.
Flaubert said: "Everything must be learnt, from talking to dying." But who can teach us to die? There are, by definition, no old pros around to talk -- or walk -- us through it.
Wisdom consists partly in not pretending any more, in discarding artifice.