One of the best things about being human is also one of the worst things: understanding that your death is inevitable.
We have this capacity because of our evolved brain. Other animals, almost certainly, lack the ability to envision a far-off future that bears no resemblance to what's being experienced in the present.
This enables us to construct civilizations that have transformed our planet. Cell phones, symphonies, electric cars, and so much else wouldn't exist without our ability to imagine possibilities that could exist, but don't at the moment.
But there's a dark side to what evolution has wrought. We members of Homo sapiens know that along with every other living thing, each of us will die one day.
I call this dark because the fear of death isn't pleasant. Nor is dying itself, unless our suffering is so great, death is a longed-for release, not a dreaded tragedy.
As I wrote about in Death and the primal fear of non-existence, I've had glimpses of the void that follows our last breath. It's more frightening than anything I've ever experienced, because nothingness is an absence, not a thing.
I’ve come face to face with not-existing. It’s scary. Really scary. I’ve never experienced anything scarier. I can call it “fear,” but it’s more than that. Worse than that. Regular fear arises when something bad is happening or could happen.
But primal fear is looking into the maw of nothing happening to you, because there will be no you around for anything to happen to. Do you get the difference? I hope so. I don’t know if I can describe it any more clearly.
This experience has come to me about a dozen times. Mostly while I’m going to sleep. Occasionally in meditation. It isn’t something that I can bring about on my own. It isn’t a thought; it isn’t an emotion; it isn’t a perception. It’s as if a curtain covering non-existence opens for a moment, giving me a peek into a nothingness that is absolute.
Because I’m not there. I mean, I’m obviously there at the moment, looking into the depths of not-existing for eternity. Yet what I feel all the way down to the marrow of my being is what it means to live for a time and then to not live for all the rest of time.
Yesterday I had a milder version of what I tried to describe above. I was exercising at our athletic club, doing my usual thing in the room with weight-training machines, when a sudden realization hit my mind with the force of a heavy bar-bell striking a mat.
Eventually I'm going to die. That will be the end of exercising. Also, of life, of consciousness, of existing as anything else but insentient atoms.
I let that feeling wash over me for a few seconds. Then I moved to the next machine. Soon I felt "normal" again, though that word has ceased to carry a definite meaning for me. I really have no idea what is normal and what is abnormal when it comes to the deepest questions of life.
Is it normal to go through life without a stark realization of our inevitable upcoming death? When I was younger, I thought so, given that dying typically is far from the forefront of what youthful people are concerned about.
Now I'm 70.
I've had friends and family members die. Many of them. When I get together with others my age or older, health problems often are a prime conversation topic. We don't talk a whole lot about death in a direct fashion, but the prospect of it lurks in the background.
This is good. In fact, I do my best to keep death in the foreground, since I find that life feels sweeter when I have the attitude of Not only will this moment never come again, there will come a time when no moment will ever come again.
Sure, I still get upset, frustrated, angry, worried, and all the other negative emotions that come with being human. But embracing the reality of my eventual death puts things in perspective. Compared to (1) being dead and not-existing at all, I find (2) dealing with life's problems as best I can a lot more appealing.
No matter how joyful I feel about doing something -- and sometimes the joy is minimal -- I'm grateful that the cosmos has conjured up my brain, body, and consciousness as existing for a certain amount of time on a planet circling one of the hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy that is one of hundreds of billions of other galaxies in a universe some 14 billion years old.
That is so freaking far out, I don't even need to be high on (totally legal) homegrown Oregon marijuana to be blown away by the marvelousness of it all.
Would I prefer to not know that I'm going to die? Well, I have no choice about it, though I suppose there's a slim chance I'll develop some sort of condition that makes it impossible for me to envision my eventual demise.
Unfortunately, that condition likely would also make it impossible for me to do most of the things I enjoy doing: write, read, ponder, plan, look forward to the future, engage in citizen activism aimed at improving the world for future generations.
So I'm happy with being fearful about death.
That anxiety adds an extra "spiritual" dimension to my life, using that word in a decidedly non-supernatural sense. I'm pleased that I've given up the fantasy of life after death, since believing that this world is merely a stepping stone to some imagined eternal existence diminishes the priceless value of our one and only human existence.
Mary Oliver, the poet, put it beautifully. (Paraphrased in the image.)
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?