Over the course of the last few days, I’ve found myself thinking quite often about mortality, the death of loved ones and my death as well. Part of the reason is that my father has been unwell for several weeks and just today, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, something which we’ve worried about for the past several weeks. While it is too early to say what exactly the prognosis is, it could be very serious.
It’s made me realise once again that my parents are getting on in years and at age 41 I may not be old, I’m also no longer a spring chicken. It’s reasonable to assume that before long, I may be forced to say goodbye to my father. While I have always known that such a day would eventually come, the news of today has made the matter very clear again: our time in this world is preciously limited.
It’s made me think about facing death. As Marcus Aurelius said:
Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.
While this is an admirable sentiment, I think a lot depends on the way ones death comes about. Not all of us are lucky enough to die in our sleep at a ripe old age. Many die from a debilitating disease, struggling, lingering, sometimes in agony. Not the end I wish for, though it may make it easier to smile back at death. For no matter how much we may wish to cling to life, our mortality is a given. From the most insignificant to the most important of people, death gets us in the end.
Some die in an accident. Whilst this may be quick, it leaves you no time to say goodbye, it leaves you no time to prepare or to sort out your affairs. It’s also hard on those left behind. No, I don’t think this is the way I would choose to go either.
I have the same objection against dying at the hand of another person. Hopefully, this would be fast but it leaves you with no time.
While there is no “best way to die” for me, I’ve come to the realisation that if I have to die, I hope I will do so with some foreknowledge. I hope I will be able to finish my Earthly affairs so at least I can look back on things with a sense of achievement or satisfaction. I’d want to say my goodbyes to the people who matter most to me, to my loves ones. If I still have the strength, I’d want to go to one or two special places again to see them one last time, with my children and my wife. If I can leave my life behind like this, with some dignity, it wouldn’t be so bad.
Am I afraid of death? I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m afraid of being dead. After all, when I’m dead, I’m dead. Since I am an atheist, I don’t fear a final judgement, I don’t fear the fires of hell. If there’s an afterlife, well, lucky me. If there’s not, I won’t know about it because I’ll be dead. What I am afraid of is the process of dying itself. Feeling the end approaching, knowing that it’s all going to be finished. Now, sitting in my comfy chair thinking these thoughts, that moment seems as far away as ever. I am acutely aware though that eventually, it will come, especially lying awake at night in the dark.
What saddens me the most about dying, is that all these wonderful memories, all the things I’ve thought and experienced, the places I’ve visited and the things that I have said and done, will be gone forever. When the biochemical computer in my head no longer receives oxygen, when the activity of my neurons stops and my brain cells begin to die, all of that will be wiped out. All those things that made me me, will vanish.
What also saddens me is that time will go on. Humanity will go on without me and I won’t get to know how the story unfolds. Will we make it to other planets? Is there other life out there? Will we be able to change our way of life so that we will no longer plunder the planet? Or are we going towards a dark future, where most of humanity is dominated by a small elite, where people are kept happy by mind-control and drugs? A sort of “Brave New World”? Or will we destroy the ecosystem completely and will we die out or will our civilisation collapse? Will humanity linger in darkness besides the shadows of what were once mighty cities? I want to know how our story develops.
And of course I want to know what will happen to my loved ones. Will my boys grow up and be happy, have children of their own? Will my genes carry on into the future so that one of my great-great-great-great-grandchildren will stand on the surface of Mars? Will my wife be okay without me?
These thoughts are not happy thoughts, I know. And it is no wonder that people do their utmost to avoid thinking about this, inventing stories about a forever happy afterlife and so on. It’s important to remember though that while it may be okay to expect a happy life after death, you don’t forget to live here and now. Don’t throw away the time that’s been given to you in expectation of something better after death. All indications point to there not being an afterlife.
I think it is also important that we, as a society, stop being so scared of death. We try to hide death but it is as much a part of life as is birth. Our parents can choose a lot about how and where they want to deliver us into this world. I think it is equally important that as adults, we can decide how we leave this world. It’s important to have things like euthanasia, so when someone says they don’t wish to go on living, their life can be ended in a humane manner. Yes, there should be rules and regulations but I think the human right to dignity and self determination should extend to our death. What could possibly be the reason for keeping a person alive when they are suffering and have indicated they don’t wish to go on? In many societies, people give their pets more humane deaths than they do with their family members and that is just wrong.
Enough of the gloom and doom for now. While death may be unavoidable, mine isn’t here yet so I’ll forget it for a bit. Here’s a joke to lighten your mood, and mine.
There’s this couple who do what they can to live long, healthy lives. So they eat healthy, don’t smoke, don’t drink and every morning and evening go for a run together. On one their runs, they are both hit by a bus and are instantly killed.
After a flash of light, they both arrive at the gates of heaven and are greeted by St. Peter who welcomes them to heaven. He shows them a beautiful villa, situated on a beach, palm trees waving in the wind, the sun shining warmly on the sands. On the beach, lovely young men and women are playing badminton, beach volley, etc.
So the man asks St. Peter: “You mean this is our place now?”
St. Peter acknowledges that indeed this is their new home.
“And how long can we stay here for?” the man asks.
St. Peter explains that since this is heaven, they can stay there forever. He then excuses himself to go and welcome other new arrivals.
He isn’t even out of earshot though, when the man turns to the woman and hisses at her: “You, with your all bran cereal, your jogging and your meat substitutes! Do you see this? We could have had this 10 years ago!”