Monday, July 8, 2013

Death, past, present, and future

“Everything ends in death, everything. Death is terrible.” 

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace


A couple of days ago, I had a conversation with a friend about death and dying. Our discussion centered around these questions: Why are we so afraid of death? Are we afraid of no longer being around, of no longer being conscious of what is going on in this world? Or are we afraid of no longer being in the lives of people we are close to and care about, of no longer being a part of events, of being condemned to being perpetually referred to in the past tense ("Nobel was generally a great guy when he was around, but he can also be an asshole sometimes..."), of being unable to speak for oneself?

I won't bore you here with a blow-by-blow account of how the conversation went (I don't really remember, anyway). But by the end of the conversation, I came to the conclusion that what many people are really afraid of is not so much death itself (and the cessation of existence that accompanies this event), but the process of dying, i.e. the process of pain, discomfort and indignity (say, the indignity of being unable to do even routine everyday things like going to the bathroom without needing the help of others) that precedes the cessation of existence for many people. In our everyday lives, we tend to think of death--if and when we do think about it--as this sudden "poof" instant where we just, you know, "poof" and vanish from existence like a bubble that has popped. And perhaps, if death really does happen in this sudden "poof" kind of way, we would not fear it as much as we do. But of course, we know that very few of us will have the good fortune to die in this sudden and painless way. Many of us will probably have to undergo a certain degree of pain and suffering, and God forbid, indignity on the way to death.

But let us just suppose for a second that we have a way of ensuring that death will be painless (perhaps because technology has advanced to the point where everybody can be assured a quick and painless death when our time on this earth is up, perhaps because society has advanced to the point where physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia has become widely socially acceptable, etc.). Even if we have a way of ensuring this, there is still a problem: We don't know when exactly we are going to die. And so we won't know when that moment will come when we will have to be separated from everything and everybody that we care about in this world.

There are those who say, in response to this problem, that this is why we should live every single day as if it were the last day of our lives. This is very beautiful advice in its own way, but it does not address a basic disconnect between what we are as human beings and the fact of our own mortality. Human beings do live in the present, but the present only makes sense against the background of the past, and the plans and projections that we make for the future. Right now, for example, you are reading this particular paragraph that I am writing in this present moment. Even as you are reading this, however, some part of your mind is simultaneously working to assimilate this particular paragraph to everything that has come before. At the same time, another part of your mind (or maybe it's the same part, I don't know; I'm no psychologist) is making some assumptions about what I am going to say next. What I'm saying is this: Unless you are actively assimilating the present into the past as you perceive it, and also projecting into the future at the same time, you won't be able to read and comprehend anything effectively.

This applies not just to reading and comprehending text, it also applies to reading and comprehending life. We cannot even begin to make sense of ourselves, our lives, and our place in the universe (or whatever it is that you call that thing which is much bigger than yourself) unless we continually assimilate the present into the past and project it into the future (which is kind of why I think that the whole idea of living only in the present is a pretty idea, but is ultimately misguided new-agey talk; but I won't go into this now).

But I need to get back to the problem of death. So this is where the problem of death comes in: Since we don't know when we are going to die, we also cannot know when we will have to stop projecting into the future. Here, of course, the living-fully-in-the-present people will say, "Ah, but this is why you need to live each day--no, each moment--as if it were the last day or moment of your life. If you do this, then you will be able to stop projecting into the future." Again, very beautiful advice, but again, this doesn't address the sheer reality of human experience, which is that being human (or, at least, being human among other humans) necessarily involves projecting into the future and making some at least minimal assumptions about what that future will look like. Even if you decide that you are going to kill yourself tomorrow and are going to give away all your possessions today, you still have to make plans about who to give to, and assume that the people whom you are giving to will be around long enough to receive what you have to give them. And just making this assumption is itself a projection into the future. So one simply cannot live as a human without some measure of projection into the future.

Death abruptly thwarts any and all such projection and lays it to waste by bringing the projector (you) out of the picture abruptly. And the problem is that we don't know when this abrupt thwarting will happen. Which brings up an interesting question: Suppose there were a way for each of us to know when exactly we are going to die (don't ask me how exactly this is going to come about; I'm just supposing...)? If we can somehow know when exactly we are going to die (without knowing how), wouldn't this make our lives a little easier, by taking a lot of the guesswork out of when we need to get all our shit done before we disappear from this world? Wouldn't this make our lives easier, by giving us a final deadline by which we need to make something out of our time on this earth, or simply get whatever we want to get done on this earth done? So I guess what I'm asking is: Wouldn't it be a good thing if we can know when exactly we are going to die?

Well, I've just about said all I have to say on this topic, at least for now. How to end? Well, how about a poll? I haven't conducted a poll on this blog in a while. So, in the top right-hand corner of this blog, you will find a poll with the question: If there is a way of knowing when exactly you are going to die, would you want to know? Feel free to participate. A little morbid for a poll question, I suppose, but if we can't talk and think about death, what else can we meaningfully talk and think about?                


  1. There is a common understanding among many cultures in regard to dying, that those who do not know how to live also do not know how to die.

    "If when I die, the moment I'm dying, if I suffer that is all right, you know; that is suffering Buddha. No confusion in it. Maybe everyone will struggle because of the physical agony or spiritual agony, too. But that is all right, a that is not a problem. If you had a limitless life it would be a real problem for you." - Shunryu Suzuki

    "Some of my patients in their 90s or 100s say nunc dimittis — 'I have had a full life, and now I am ready to go.' [...] When my time comes, I hope I can die in harness, as Francis Crick did. When he was told that his colon cancer had returned, at first he said nothing; he simply looked into the distance for a minute and then resumed his previous train of thought. When pressed about his diagnosis a few weeks later, he said, 'Whatever has a beginning must have an ending.' When he died, at 88, he was still fully engaged in his most creative work." - Oliver Sacks, in an essay published yesterday:

    Sacks also has had the opportunity to study individuals who have no capacity to create or recall memories, or to imagine any circumstance other than the present. His subjects did not appear to enjoy their condition.

  2. spontaneously i say that i would want to know.

    a) because i don't want to leave a mess behind (like a messy room, embarrassing belongings and messy relationships)

    b) because in the last six months or so a very nice achievable dream of how my life could unfold in the next ten years has formed. nothing too strict, just that i want to get my master's degree and then be 50% lecturer at uni and 50% yoga teacher. but since i am so sure of this dream i often all of a sudden think how there's a huge possibility that i couldn't live all of this? i could die tomorrow or in a year or in five years but i get too much joy from being alive and being able to pursue my dreams. if i knew i had only one year left i would've booked flights to every place in the world i still want to visit already! :)

    c) my mother died from cancer when i was 15 and i kinda could prepare myself for her death because of the medic's prediction. obviously it was still horrible for me, being so young and everything. but i knew every moment and conversation counted tenfold and i prefer that over suddenly getting a phone call that someone you love died in a car crash.