Religious believers have dogmas that comfort when death stares them in the face. Resurrection of the body. Eternal survival of the soul.
Some secular "survivalists" hold onto equally unfounded hypotheses: that their body can be kept alive for a really long time through a health/medical breakthrough, or kept frozen and reanimated in some advanced technological future.
(Uploading of one's brain contents to a back-up brain or computerized alternative is another dream of those who desire immortality outside of religion.)
In his "Immortality," a book I've blogged about recently here and here, Stephen Cave persuasively demolishes the efficacy of these three approaches to immortality -- Staying Alive, Resurrection, Soul.
He also is skeptical, though not to the same degree, of the Legacy approach: continuing on through children, creative works, professional achievements, social/scientific accomplishments, positive memories in the minds of family and friends, etc. etc.
Yes, we can sort of live on through the legacy we leave behind. But not really. We're dead and gone, so we don't know how our legacies are being treated. Cave asks the reader, do you even know the names of your great-grandparents, much less the details of their lives?
(My answer: no.)
So how do we deal with what Cave calls the Mortality Paradox, without fooling ourselves that we've cheated death via the unworkable approaches of Staying Alive, Resurrection, Soul, and Legacy? The Mortality Paradox is simply stated:
Awareness of your mortality and an inability to conceive of ourselves as not existing.
ln a concluding chapter, Cave turns positive. Here, he says, is what can actually work to relieve our fear of death.
First, "unending life would most likely be a terrible curse." He offers up good reasons for this statement, but it won't convince believers in an eternal, or timeless, heavenly realm where the soul or resurrected body never tires of divine delights.
The second step, then, is to accept "that the fear of actually being dead is nonsensical." Why? Because that fear is only present while we're alive. When we're dead, we're not conscious of anything, naturally including fear.
To talk of "being dead" is just a shorthand for saying they have ceased to exist. ..."Life has no end." That is, we can never be aware of it having an end -- we can never know anything but life.
This may seem obvious. However, now that I've finished Cave's book I realize that while my inescapable inability to know what it is like to be dead is just that, obvious, I hadn't fully embraced the meaning of this understanding.
Reading about Cave's third step, "to cultivate virtues that undermine those aspects of our nature that lead to both the will to persist forever and the corresponding existential angst," pointed me in a direction that fits with where my ever-increasing churchlessness has been leading me.
Here they are, The Three Virtues. I like them.
Naturally Cave says more about The Three Virtues than I've been able to share here. But this will give you a good idea of how secular wisdom concerning how to deal with death is akin to aspects of various spiritual "wisdom traditions," such as Buddhism and Taoism.
Identifying With Others.
Awareness of self might be important, but excessive concern with the self only exacerbates the fear of death, or loss of self, and leads some to a life of self-absorption. In order to combat this, we should cultivate selflessness, or identifying with others.
...This obsession with the self grew out of the doctrine of the immortal soul.
...We have seen that by taking the fear of death at face value, all four immortality narratives exacerbate the very attitudes that underpin that fear. By encouraging people to obsess about their own health, or the state of their own soul, or their particular legacy, they encourage the very self-centered, future-oriented and negative view that caused the fear in the first place.
...Bertrand Russell put it well: "The fear of death is somewhat abject and ignoble. The best way to overcome it -- so at least it seems to me -- is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life."
Focus on the Present.
Similarly, picturing the future helps us to plan a successful life, but excessive concern with the future causes us to focus on the tribulations that lie ahead of us -- and we forget to live now. Therefore we should learn to live more in the present moment.
...When left to their own devices, our minds busy themselves with plans, plots, worries and idle speculation -- much of it about things that might go badly for us... By dwelling on all manner of possible threats, we bring death into life, only then to die without having truly lived.
...If you are happy now, then you are happy always, as there is only now. But equally, if you spend each moment worrying about your future happiness, then happiness will always elude you, and your life will be one of anxiety. And, as we have seen, worrying about death -- something we can never experience -- is the most foolish worry of all.
Imagining all the things that could threaten our existence might help us to avoid them, but in excess it leads us only to worry about what we might lose rather than appreciate what we have. Therefore we should cultivate gratitude.
...That an unbroken chain of many millions of ancestors over billions of years all managed to do their bit to bring us into existence, that is our blessing. And it is an extraordinary one, involving more strokes of luck and cosmic coincidences than are possibly countable.
We can barely begin to measure the good fortune that led to the development first of life, then of animals, of mammals, of humans, of your family, and, finally, of you. Complex life -- and in particular the life of any individual -- is remarkable.
...And what these facts suggest is that before we rue our plight of a short life overshadowed by death, we should be grateful -- very, very grateful -- that we have a shot at life at all, and with a brain capable of appreciating and creating so much wonder.
...We have evolved to focus on what we stand to lose -- ultimately on the threat of death -- causing us to live in fear instead of reveling in the extraordinary good fortune of being.
...It is no coincidence that gratitude is one of the common themes throughout the world's wisdom literature and a powerful antidote to the fear of death. As the Greek Stoic Epicurus put it, "He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has."