When I'm in a complaining mood, I like to curse the cosmos for crap that particularly annoys me. Who asked for this stuff? We'd be better off without it.
Fourteen billion or so years after the big bang, life on Earth has evolved to the point that we humans can envisage the possibility of our self existing forever, even though it is obvious that every single Homo sapiens who has ever lived, has died.
This is totally fucked up. Whoever is in charge of the cosmos, and it seems pretty damn clear that nobody is, there's obviously hugely better ways of arranging human consciousness. Here's two.
(1) Make it so we always die and are gone forever, and we can't envision any alternative to this inescapable reality.
(2) Make it so we never die and live forever, and we can't envision any alternative to this inescapable reality.
Either way would leave us satisfied with what actually is. Either death and eternal non-existence, or life and eternal existence.
However, what has transpired is a splitting of our awareness. We are conscious of both our concrete physical self, and also of our abstract symbolic self.
Indeed, an enormous proportion of all human activity, in Becker's view, is 'designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.'
We are able to sustain this denial, he explains, because we possess both a physical self and a symbolic one. And while it is inevitable that the physical self will perish, the symbolic self -- the one that exists in our minds -- is quite capable of convincing itself that it is immortal.
...If Becker is right, the 'wondrous' fact that we behave as if we're immortal isn't so wondrous after all. You don't fail to think about your mortality. Rather, your life is one relentless attempt to avoid doing so -- a struggle so elemental that, unlike in the case of the 'white bear challenge', for much of the time you succeed.
Don't think of a white bear for the next two minutes. This almost-impossible feat ("Mustn't think of a white bear... damn, I just did!"'; "Am I not thinking of a white bear?... damn, now I am!") somehow is made semi-possible when white bear is replaced by death.
But that's only because we put so much effort into distracting ourselves from the reality of death.
Which is why I say it would be much better if we could just accept what freaking is, rather than feeling compelled to conjure up a possible future where our symbolic self lives on after our physical self dies.
Keeping that symbolic self tidily in order, psychologically well-fed, protected from messy realizations like Woody Allen's below (from his 1975 movie Love and Death), this is a wearying job.
BORIS: Nothingness. Non-existence. Black emptiness.
SONIA: What did you say?
BORIS: Oh, I was just planning my future.
I look at our dogs and envy them. They seem to enjoy their lives. Every day. Eat, go for a walk, sleep, play, get patted, sleep, eat... start over. One of our dogs likely only has a year or two to live. But she doesn't know that. She is happy being alive now; doesn't worry about being dead later.
In a different way, I envy people who are sure they will live forever, albeit in a different bodily or non-bodily form. I used to be one of those people. It was comforting to believe that my symbolic self was more lasting and real than my physical self, despite any convincing evidence that this was so.
Being stuck with the knowledge that (1) I will die, and (2) I won't live after I die -- that sucks. Not that I have any alternative. For me now, trying to forget about (1) and (2) is like trying to forget about a white bear.
When I try to do it, I fail. The only approach that makes sense to me is to enthusiastically embrace those two almost certainly true facts. Such is the approach that Burkeman advocates in his book, a subject for another post.