I have recently turned eighty. That’s 80 years or eight decades on this planet (not counting the three-fourths of a year or so when I was gestating). And though there has been no apparent change in either my physical or mental capacity (well, not obviously; though I have been noticing subtle changes in my balance and in my endurance at simple tasks, and others may well notice less than subtle changes in my mental ravings), there has been just today a change in my thinking about endings. About death. It’s something most of us are reluctant to contemplate most of the time. Too depressing. We all know we’re mortal. We all know we’re going to die. Some day. But usually throughout most of our lives, we are able to set aside that some day to an indefinite “later.” I’ll deal with that later. For now, there’s too much to do, too much to see, too much to enjoy. Too many people to take care of or whatever momentary crisis needs our attention. With the passage of my eightieth birthday, however, thoughts of death have arisen unbidden. And I no longer have the inclination or the capacity to shove them aside.
So here we are. Closer to the fulfillment of a lifetime than ever (notice how I just avoided that dreaded word “end”). And though most popular discussions about such times focus on accomplishments, or how much one has enjoyed life, or whether there’s still something one wishes to do or see or accomplish, it now seems to me that those questions are really only more attempts to put aside the real question. And that question is: what happens? What happens when I am no more? What happens to whatever it is I am when the most obvious manifestation of “what I am” has turned cold, immovable, inert?
And here’s where we get into problems. It’s not so much that I fear the end, as Woody Allen once said (he added that ‘I just don’t want to be there when it happens’—which is another way of saying I’m afraid of the pain of death). That’s not the real problem. Because if the end is truly painful, then the release of not being there anymore would come as a relief. As something sought. No. The real problem with thinking about death is that we have no tools with which to think it. It is the great unknowing. For every other state that seems analogous to “not being,” such as sleep or being put under some consciousness-blotting drug (and the new ones are simply fantastic), we have the comparison that comes when we “wake up.” We come out of sleep or we come out of anesthesia, and we can think back to what we can remember or even not remember, for not-remembering is a kind of remembering: I don’t remember a thing. And we compare that with the state of non-consciousness in whatever way we choose. The problem with death is that there’s no comparable comparative state. Once we die, that’s it. There is no waking up (unless we happen to subscribe to the comforting notion of heaven or Valhalla or reincarnation or whatever myth we’ve been taught, all of which seem pretty obviously moot here). There is only the full stop. Death. Period. End of story.
That is the hard thing to contemplate or comprehend. The impossible thing. Because, again, we have no waking state from which to view it. We’re gone, our ability to contemplate or comprehend is gone with us, and all that’s left are the people and world we’ve left behind—if we can even say they exist any more, because once our ability to see or sense them is gone, we don’t even know whether they, or the world itself still exists in any meaningful sense. Does it? We don’t know. We have no way to judge. No way to reason about it. It’s gone because we’re gone. Our contemplating of goneness is gone.
And so we come to a dead end—all puns intended. And thinking about that dead end is what I, what we all fear more than anything else. The non-existence of ourselves. Of our ability to see or comprehend the world. Which we are sure exists and which we want to maintain in our body/minds and in its present state (if there is such a thing) for as long as possible. But with no me to maintain it, the world simply disappears. All its objectivity turns into an illusion. It depended on me to give it shape and form, and once I’m gone, it is gone too. It’s a bit like the notion in quantum physics where any object only exists when there is an observer to pop it into existence. Without the observer, we can’t tell what state it’s in. And that drives us crazy. Which is why death, the notion of death, drives us crazy. And which is why so many variants of the persistence of something—of some locus of consciousness like the soul that is prior to the mere matter that is the body—have occurred over the millennia. Unable to contemplate anything without us, we invent a state where some non-material, essential us is preserved. And lives on. Which is what we really want.
The question is, can we dispense with this comforting notion entirely, and still contemplate death? Can we contemplate our own nonentity? Our own nonbeing? Our own nothingness?
It’s not easy. I have been trying to do this for some time now. The world without me. And only one thing is certain: it won’t be the same world I now know. It will be the same world in many particulars, presumably, but the world that I perceive and roam through will not exist. Nor will I. And that’s the impossible part to conceive. Conceiving implies an “I” to animate it. Without an I, without me, what can be conceived? Can my death be conceived without me? Or is death only conceivable to those who survive? It seems so. Absence is only conceivable by that which is still present. Those who know me will be able to notice, and perhaps grieve, that I am gone. But what about me? Will I be able to see that I am gone? It’s like an Escher drawing. Recursion. How can I see myself when what I see with is not there?
And the question then becomes, does it matter? Is it important to know what death is like? Well, at this moment, it is. To me. I would like to know. Or maybe it is a mercy that I don’t know. Maybe that’s what the real meaning is here. We are not allowed to know because actually knowing death would be too hard. Too painful. So we are kept in the dark until the dark comes, and then the issue has vanished anyway.
I hate that. I hate to accept that. Knowing seems to me, seems to our entire culture, to be an unalloyed good. We should all know what we’re about. We should all know what we are. We should all be aware of what we’re doing and what is happening to us so that perhaps some of the hateful things wouldn’t be allowed. And yet, the most important question remains beyond our reach. We keep it beyond our reach for most of our lives, and then when we want to grasp it, we realize that it’s still out of reach, that, perhaps, we’re not meant to grasp it. But by whom? Who means to spare us this final realization? It’s almost like taking refuge in a putative big Daddy again. And that simply won’t do. There must be something to become aware of, some way to grasp the solution to the big question. But at this moment, I have to confess, I don’t have the key; and don’t know anyone who does. Don’t even know if there is a key. Or if having the key would make it any better. And yet. And yet it almost feels as if the key is there, tantalizing but just outside my grasp. And so all I’m left with is a kind of yearning, and a kind of frustration. Almost there, but not quite. But I soon will be. And that’s not a comfort either. It’s not like being impatient for the arrival of a big day when something grand will happen. It’s not like awaiting one’s birthday or Christmas when one was young, or a grand achievement when one is older. No. It’s like wanting to know something that, when known, will be, or might be the worst thing one has ever known. That’s what death could be like. Wanting to know something that one at the same time does not want to know. And so, driving eagerly towards it and at the same time putting on the brakes: no, wait, just another few days or weeks or years. Give me some more time to maybe find the solution, some prediction, some protection before it comes.
Ah god. A consummation devoutly to be wished. Hamlet went over the whole thing four or five centuries ago. To be or not to be. Except that he was contemplating suicide. A choice. With a natural death, it’s not that we’re contemplating a choice. We’re contemplating an inevitability, some consummation (being consumed) we have no choice about. No choice whatever. And though we hate that, maybe it’s a good thing. If we had a choice, we’d be likely to screw it up like everything else humans do. So maybe it’s a good thing we’re compelled. Compelled under the utmost compulsion of all: death. The mystery that refuses to be solved. The final comeuppance to arrogant homo sapiens. You cannot solve this one, smartass. You simply cannot solve it or outwit it because that which you use to solve and outwit things is gone simultaneously with the thing to be solved. And, dammit, though I hate it, though it’s maybe not as it should be, it’s maybe simply as it must be, as it is .