Death scares me to death. On the rare, but tortuous occasion, I find myself lying awake at dawn, watching the pink light of a new day glitter up my room, thinking, “What does this all mean—to be alive? Is this really happening? When will my time end?” Yep. My palms are sweating again.
Like Woody Allen says, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Or even better, “My relationship to death remains the same…I’m strongly against it.”
Cheers Woody. Truth be told, death terrifies us. So much so, that we tend to live in denial and construct immortality narratives, one of the peculiarities of our species. But what also sets us apart as conscious beings are our highly connected brains and our self-awareness, enabling us to foresee the future, and simultaneously to grapple with the terrifying prospect of our own demise.
Cambridge University professor, Stephen Cave explores this paradox in his Immortality: The Quest To Live Forever And How It Drives Civilization:
“On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is the very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.”
In other words, we are blessed with powerful minds, but no matter what we do, we know that one day the Reaper will take us. This is what defines us as mortal. He also points out that even trying to imagine your funeral, or the “dark empty void” of death itself, you’re still present as the observer, the eye doing the envisioning.
“We therefore cannot make death real to ourselves as thinking subjects. Our powerful imaginative faculties malfunction: it is not possible for the one doing the imagining to actively imagine the absence of the one doing the imagining.”
Humans naturally fear the unknown. And death is the greatest fear because it is the greatest unknown. Our culture is obsessed with certainty. We strive for knowledge and answers, but must understand that we will always remain surrounded by mystery.
Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination, but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more we know to ask. We will never truly understand death because when it’s our turn, we will no longer think.
As John Updike put it, “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery.”
In the meantime, we must continue to live, to strive for happiness wholeheartedly, even in the face of our fate. I could say: be present, or live life to the fullest, but you guys already know that. I think it’s important to find a way to accept death. What else can we do?
Like Carl Jung insists, “The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
While I am here, all I know is to be the best fucking human I can be.
And the next time I’m awake at dawn, I’ll let my thoughts on death carry through. I’ll try not to see death as a negative, ugly thing, but more so an inevitable part of our existence on this magical planet—a planet that’s hard to imagine real at all, with its colors and textures, sparkly oceans, snowy mountains, sunsets and sunrises, and those infinite stars miraculously visible to our naked eye. I’ll rise out of bed, make a cup of coffee, and start the new day.