My aunt, Delores, died a few days ago. She was 78 years old, had been married for 62 ½ years, had 8 children, 24 grandchildren, and 15 great grandchildren, with 2 more on the way. I haven’t seen her since thanksgiving and she died on January 6. I am glad she got to live the life she did, she had a wonderful and fulfilling life. But couldn’t it have been for a much longer time?
I remember playing in her yard, the stories she would tell of her children, and getting accosted by a bat in her barn. All the times we came to visit and she and Hub were always so warm and welcoming. Ready to give you some freshly cooked food, or some cookies. Or some Tea. I sit and write this as I sip on some tea, I remember that she would make me a cup of tea every time I went over there, even when I was very young, it is how I started drinking tea. The many days spent there just sitting at her table talking. I love her, she was a good person and I will miss her terribly.
We are only able to express our emotions, our love and affection for our family, through words, and words will always be but a pale shadow of the ideas and feelings they are meant to represent. Just saying “I love you” as I often did to DeeDee, does not ever do the core feeling enough justice. I wish that I could have conveyed to DeeDee what I felt for her, how much I admired her and value her, but whenever I try to extrapolate on such things I always seem at a loss for words, and I can never seem to get as close to someone as I want to be. A person’s mind is such a rich and complex place that you could explore it for their whole life and still never truly know them. We have difficulty in even getting to know ourselves, after all. Maybe some day we will have the technology to transfer a feeling directly to another mind, we may be able to capture the very feelings and emotional power and convey it to another person, imprinting the pattern of your feelings in your mind on theirs, in the way a physical embrace imprints the warmth and presence of another person. But until then we must struggle to truly convey our feelings through only words and embraces.
No one tells you, that as you grow old, your heart and mind remain that of a person in their 20’s. They never tell you that you dream just as much, want to do just as much, want to live as strong and as vibrantly as you ever did at the prime of your life. That while you desire all of that, your body fails and crumbles, withers, weakens, creaks and aches. That your spirit is young and alive and wants to jump up and race and run and fly at any age. But your body protests every step of the way, and even now as I enter my 30’s I feel the small hints of it, and I know enough to see it when I look into the eyes of the people older than I and see that spark flicker at the life they *ought* to be living right then, railing against the reality of their bodies. I know that my aunt was young and full of life even to her very last moments.
I didn’t get to see her as much as I would like but I have spent so much time working on things. I kept wanting to go and visit her and my uncle, I love them both very much, and of course love them as relatives, but as individuals I love them. I didn’t see them because I always chose to work on things instead, to work on my projects and my long term goals, because ultimately I wanted to help them when I got successful. I wanted to get a membership to Alcor so I could go see them and tell them about it. So I could show them my bracelet and necklace and possibly have more of an impact than if I didn’t have a membership, if I wasn’t signed up for what to them would be a strange procedure that I was asking them to sign up for they would have a much harder time giving it a fair hearing. I didn’t see them. I chose to work. When challenged with the question ‘What would you do if your loved one only had a few days to live?” I always answer that I would do everything I could in those few days to try to save them. But that means you would not be spending quality time with them. Which is more important? I guess it’s best to weigh the chances of success. But to not try and to see them die, is unbearable to me. I must act in accordance with my values. I could struggle and struggle to try to save them and no one would ever know, it would just seem like, to them, that I was distant. That I didn’t care. So it seems with DeeDee perhaps, that I was distant, and didn’t care. The truth couldn’t be more wrong, I love her and wanted to try to save her, I knew she was sick and dying, the only chance I would have would be for them to try cryogenic preservation. I doubt they would have, but I could have at least tried. But I didn’t, I never got the chance to. I couldn’t afford my own Alcor membership and so was trying to get one of my businesses successful enough to afford it, so I could go to them and try to get them to sign up. The night of her death was a message on my answering machine from Alcor, asking if they could assist me in signing up.
Now she is gone. Forever, Delores is dead now. Her last breath has slipped out and her cells stopped working. Her mind immediately starting to deteriote. Gone forever, a beautiful, wonderful, fascinating mind, person, gone for all of eternity. There is no afterlife, no heaven, no resting in peace, she is just gone. She ceases to exist. We can not begin to wrap our minds around such a thing. We can not imagine not existing. But one day I will not exist, and you will not exist, and everyone you know and love will not exist. Why? Why do we let happen? It is not right, it never has been, and never will be.
A single person is more unique than a whole galaxy devoid of sentient life. Then even a whole universe. Life. Conscious life, is the most precious thing in the universe, yet we waste it foolishly. We risk it so we think we might value it more. Our lives are so short that we’ll do crazier things since we have so little life to protect. We all have known for months she would die soon, and I know my parents and brother will, and I will someday. There is no escaping it, no evading it, no delusions that comfort me. Just the real and tangible lack of existence. There is no real way to console someone on the death of a loved one. Consolation is not possible when there is absolutely nothing that can ever make you ok with something like that. The closest we have is distance. Our memories fade, the pain becomes constant, and then dulled, and then in the background. Our minds adapt and get used to the world without them. We learn to live with it, but we never get over it. I did not mourn outwardly much tonight, I was sad, and I cried, but there was not anger, no rage at the world. I know what kind of world we live in, I know what preciousness is lost every second, every day. I am used to it, I think about it constantly.
90 Billion lives since the dawn of human existence, gone forever. It is not right. It was never right, it never will be right. Death does not give life value, the end of something does not make it’s beginning worthwhile, death is the destruction of values, all values, the end of something is the destruction of that something. We tolerate it because we can do nothing about it. We make up stories and delude ourselves so we don’t have to deal with the real horror of it. Life is the source of all values, it should always hurt, immeasurable, when a fundamental value is lost to us, forever. They did what they could, people will say. But we didn’t. We didn’t do all we could. We sat around, watching TV, playing video games, chatting it up online, going out to eat, partying, hanging out with friends. All the while it looms over our every actions. You will all die. Everyone you know and love will die, will cease to exist. What are you doing about it? Nothing. We aren’t doing anything. Well tell ourselves that we can not become experts at things because we are not born that way, that we can not learn and do the things required to fight aging and death, to give us all indefinite life spans. That no matter how hard we try we can’t do anything anyway. But is that true? Are we really being honest with ourselves. To do so means coming to the full and conscious recognition of how horrific death is, something we are not eager as a people to do. So instead we all fade, deteriorate, suffer, cry, and die. Persons slipping away into eternity forever. You, your loved ones, everyone you know and love will die and disappear forever. What are you doing about it?
Death is terrible and tragic, with every single death, the sun should dim, a cold wind blow across the world, the seas should calm, all sounds and lights should fade, and everyone stop in their tracks and bow their heads, knowing that one of their own is gone. That a magnificent human being now ceases to exist, lost to the ravages of entropy for all of eternity. But today it would happen so frequently that we would all become numb to it, and the sun would flash like a strobe light. We lower our flags to half staff when a member of the government passes, or there is a great tragedy. But every death is a tragedy, and our flags would never raise if we captured them all.
Each of us, every human in all of history, values deeply their own life. And faced with it’s inevitable demise, cursed as the only animal on the planet consciously aware of it’s own mortality and imminent cessation of existence, we have been forced to psychological compensate for such an unfathomable horror.
Buddhism, recognizing the immense suffering caused by the loss of a life one deeply values, sought to eradicate values so one would not suffer at their loss. That is, in order to not be upset at the loss of a loved one’s life, one needs to absolve themselves of values, and in doing so will absolve themselves of suffering. Such a state devoid of values is what “Nirvana” literally is. But this is wrong. When a loved one dies, it should be upsetting, the loss of a value is the nature of sadness. It should wreck you to the core of your soul. When a loved one survives, we should be happy, because happiness is the getting or keeping of a value. Values are the basis of suffering, but are also the basis of joy and happiness.
The Judeo Christian religions and offshoots, in an attempt to stave off the immense psychological horror that comes from death, simply made up an afterlife where everyone is miraculously resurrected to live for all of eternity in the presence of their loved ones. Death is not so bad to them, because it means literally that we are in a better place, free from pain and suffering.
Death is horrible and unconscionable, and there are very few psychological mechanisms we have to deal with. They are, essentially, to be indifferent to life, and thus indifferent to death, to devalue life, as Buddhists do, to convince ourselves death is not real, as the Judeao Christian and related religions do, to convince ourselves there is value in death, or last to be honest with reality and recognize the grievous and horrible nature of death, thus suffering psychological consequences for the whole of one’s life.
It is difficult and burdensome to choose the last, but I will not fool myself into believing something just because it makes me feel better. I will not fool myself into believing someone loves me, that I love, when they do not. I will let her go and live her life. I will not fool myself into believing that there is a bag of money buried in my yard, when there is no such thing, just because it would make me feel better and more financially secure. I will not fool myself into believing we survive bodily death when absolutely no evidence exists that even remotely suggests such a thing, just to feel better about it.
As I stood at my aunts graveside service and listened to my strongly religious cousin, one of her children, re-iterating some of these thoughts on the afterlife, I thought about the root of this desire, and I empathize with what drives people to think these things. Do they really truly believe that she is in heaven looking down on us and smiling? Probably. As he begin to admonish non believers while at her grave side, my mind begin to wonder ignoring his insulting and disrespectful tangent. I asked god, standing there, lets see it. Bring her back, right now. Lets see a blinding white light and her rise from her grave, healthy and restored. Reunite her with her husband. Show me, I said. Where are you? Do you ever do anything? She is dead, in front of you. Bring her back and I will believe. Of course nothing happened, and my eyes rose to the forest above as I cried.
In the modern secularly enlightened west, it is popular to try to find some value in death. Since these secularly enlightened people won’t be so egregious as to convince themselves into thinking there is an afterlife, and will not renounce values as a Buddhist would, they seek to convince themselves that there is value to be had in death. We see this effort manifested in some of the popular euphemisms of our day. Things like “Death gives meaning to life” (it does not, it takes away life) “Death makes you recognize and truly value things (It does not, it is the destruction of all values) “Death makes you appreciate life more” (it does not, since you will not be conscious to compare non-death to death, you can not value non-death more because of it, you will simply cease to be) “Things that have beginnings must have ends” (I prefer never ending stories) “We must die to make way for later generations” (I would prefer to know and love my great great grandparents then to have them ‘get out of the way’) “Death is a part of life (or natural)” (so were small pox and the plague, and today so is cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, ‘natural’ is for unthinking animals and plants) “The impermanence of life is what makes it special” (all things have intrinsic value to you whether permanent or not) The corollary to this last point is responsible for some of the depression atheists allegedly feel, that the transitory nature of things make them less valuable (as opposed to more) but to me, having something for sometime is better than having nothing ever. But having something you value forever is better still.
The problem with all of these evasions and psychological obfuscations, which no doubt had a lot of value when humanity had no option in the matter, is that it takes away the psychological motivation to do anything about death, and it also demotes life to nothing but the means to an end; death. But life is an end of its own, it doesn’t need to be there in order to accomplish something else, it has its own intrinsic value to each and every one of us.
I love my life, and want to live it forever. I think that most people, if raised outside of the dominate cultural philosophically narratives that devalue life, demote values, or outright fool oneself, will eventually come to the rational understanding about the intrinsic value of life that I have, and not be so ready and willing to give it up. They would also choose, if able to make an informed choice, to live their lives for as long as possible, coming to explore the world, solar system, and galaxy, and coming to know and truly love people important to them in the deepest sense possible, living with ancestors and descendants many many generations removed.
We can keep a car running for generations, and as good as new, by fixing and replacing worn out parts as they fail. But our body, that which is most precious to us, withers and fails. Why can we not repair our bodies like we do our vehicles and homes? For 100,000 years humanity had no choice in death. For some 99,750 of those years, people would mysteriously get ill and drop dead for no apparent reason, until we discovered and understood viruses and bacteria. Today we live much longer lives on average then we ever have in the history of humanity, and an average persons life in a post industrial western nation is like that of a king’s from a thousand years ago. Our household gadgets and electricity do the work of an army of slaves. We live in ornate palaces with running water, heated, able to communicate nearly instantly with anyone, anywhere, and demand and receive entertainment at a moments notice through tiny wires strung across the nation. A king of 1,000 BC could only dream of such things. Yet today more of us have these, and more and more people continue to get better standards of living. Still much of the world lives in brutal poverty and oppression, but the world is getting better. Too slowly, but it is getting better for people. But even in all of this wondrous technological achievement, we still grow old, sick, and die. But we might be the first human generation living on the cusp of a technological breakthrough, that of real, tangible mechanisms to slow and defeat aging and all disease entirely. We may one day soon be able to perpetually repair our bodies as parts fail, and even make some parts better than before. We may all have the ability to live as strong young healthy adults for as long as we’d like. And if our children and parents embrace the same path, we would live forever with people we love dearly. Combined with the rapid technological progress of humanity and the tremendous growth in global standards of living, it could be that one day, mankind, with his reason and passion for life, creates a literal heaven spread among the stars. If there ever is a heaven or a god, it will be made by humans and in their own image.