In my last post I stressed the human cost of dying. I said that the abhorrence of it we human beings feel in every fiber of our being was engrained in us by billions of years of evolution. Contradicting this instinctive abhorrence is our rational knowledge of death's certainty, leaving us trapped in a tragic riddle: why are we born and why do we die?
I argued that no humanly satisfying answer to the riddle exists, because the All that created us is non-human. It consists finally of a material substance whose infinite potential, indeterminateness, and unpredictability somehow transforms itself into finite matter. At least in this cosmos, and despite its basic irrationality, this finite matter has acquired the chaotic orderliness of our space, time, gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear forces. Humanity emerged from the random interaction of such lawless laws.
I said that none of this makes human sense. The origins and ends of the cosmos are an impenetrable mystery. Human life is often so bizarre and farcical that dying seems like its appropriately absurd punchline. Sooner or later most people sense both this absurdity and how alien death is to them. It negates everything they've hoped and lived for and forever extinguishes their zest for life.
This was my last, downbeat post. In contrast, today's upbeat post affirms the availability of solace for dying even to people like me, who believe that nothing survives human death but leftover chemicals. It also affirms that such solace is sufficient compensation for our mortality. Atheism's three bedrock principles -- realism, rationality, and moderation -- helped me arrive at these affirmations, but many other people, especially theists, probably won't find them useful. That's cool. We all have to find our own solace for dying, and whatever works for you is fine with me.
Mine rests on the assumption that when I die I'll fall into a deeper sleep than I've ever had, like the oblivion I was in before my parents' genes shaped me. I'll know nothing and feel nothing. I'll be at perfect rest, as void of sentience as the pebbles of the neighborhood path where I walk. I'll share their stony indifference to sunlight and moonlight, ice and fire, the smell of saltwater marsh or of mountaintop spruce. I'll exist only as inorganic matter no more aware than those pebbles are of anything else in the All.
In this state of oblivion, I'll obviously have no conscious afterlife. Unlike Hamlet, who fears "the rub" of being able as a corpse "to dream," I take as proven fact (see for example Sebastian Seung's new book Connectome) that my brain is powered by electrochemical currents that will end as permanently at my death as those of a dead car battery. Empirical evidence has convinced me I have no supernatural soul or spirit and that my personality, selfhood, imagination, feelings, and thoughts are material objects produced by my neuronal and synaptic brain circuitry. I contain no supernatural or immaterial ingredients whatsoever -- no transcendental flours, ineffable sugars, or sacred salts.
Nor will I have to endure any postdeath sensation, consciousness, or other psychic grotesquerie. Since I regard all such claims of death-survival as human fictions, they don't attract, theaten, inspire, or interest me except as literary devices. I like good sci-fi, ghost, and angel-demon yarns, not because I think they're real but because they amuse, entertain, even move me. This willing suspension of disbelief is as useful to today's poets, novelists, playwrights, film-makers, and fellow artists as it was to Homer and Michelangelo. Unfortunately, it's also useful to religious zealots and con-men bent on persuading people, who should know better from the available evidence, that their "souls" or "spirits" are immortal. As W.C. Fields said, a sucker's born a minute -- and no religionist will ever give her a break.
But if my belief that dying leads to a peace past all understanding helps compensate me for my death sentence, my luck in having been able to see, know, and to some extent comprehend the wilderness around me and to share it with other human beings compensates me even more. I've elsewhere in this blog explained my use of the word "wilderness" as denoting everything that did, does, and will exist in our cosmos. It refers to all the spacetime events and processes precipitated by the Big Bang, which in turn precipitated me. It also connotes my sense of cosmic grandeur, beauty, and indifference. I know I'm as much the offspring of the wilderness as I was of my parents. But unlike my parents, it neither cares for me nor in any way reciprocates what I feel for it.
Yet I sincerely love it and the bonus of living, thinking, and feeling that it's unwittingly given me. On balance, I would much rather have lived the life I have lived and endured the death I will endure than not to have lived or died at all. To those who question whether the pleasure of human existence is worth the pain of losing (or living) it, my answer is, It most certainly is. To have experienced sunlit or snowy days, moonlit or rainy nights, the morning sounds of birds, the tastes of fresh fruit, and the smells of new-cut fields has been enough for me.
Moreover, I've also had the chance to interact with other human beings. Granted, many of these interactions have been disappointing. But no one I've ever encountered has been truly vicious or life-threatening (I've been lucky), and though my wife and I were divorced after thirty years, our marriage gave us two children I prize as best friends. My wife and I still keep in touch.
My best friend is the life partner I met eight months after my wife and I separated. We'd been high school sweethearts who hadn't seen each other in thirty years. Then in the late 1980s, a couple of years after her husband died of a brain tumor in Baltimore, she read in our high school alumni magazine that I lived nearby and contacted me. We've been together since.
But many other boyhood, high school, college, graduate school, teaching-career, and retirement friends have brightened my life too. And some of my most durable friendships have been with people like Gaius Lucretius, Philip Freneau, Herman Melville, and John Updike, who introduced themselves to me solely in print. The web of sympathy, help, and knowledge these and countless other "strangers" have been weaving for me for thousands of years much consoles me for having to die.
A final kind of solace I feels flows less from the fact that life is good than from the fact that dying's not so bad. Personal experience with scores of terminal patients during the past fourteen months has taught me that, with good medical care, no one needs to fear major discomfort, much less agony, when they die. Once a week I volunteer a six-hour shift with hospice patients at the extreme end of life. Few of these so-called "actively dying" patients show much sign of pain, agitation, or restlessness, and if they do I summon help. A nurse then gives them whatever pain-killer, anti-coagulant, relaxant, or other medicine they may need. Sometimes the problem is positioning in the bed or reflex muscle motion. Many of my patients sleep the whole time I'm there.
In the past year, I've been alone with four who have died. None of these showed any perturbation, alarm, or pain. Two gradually stopped breathing, one slightly opening her eyelids after a final breath, the other breathing a few bubbles of saliva onto her lips. The other two died so quietly I didn't even notice. One must have died when she was being repositioned by two aides, because neither the aides nor I saw she was dead until they'd left and, looking at her closely, I saw she wasn't breathing. The other died while I was reading to myself next to his bed. Though as always I was glancing up every fifteen or twenty seconds to see, and keeping an ear cocked to hear, whether his breathing had changed, I never saw or heard it stop. He died without a sound or movement.
I consider this kind of death the best a person can have. The worst is to die in an agony caused by physical violence or disease without medical help. In between are of course many others, one of which is life's becoming the enemy and death the friend. I have no idea whether Freud's death-wish theory is true, but I do know several people who want to die. One's a 101-year-old who's been in hospice for years and who cheerfully tells me every time I see him that he's tired of life and wants it to end. Another is a 93-year-old who worries she'll use up all her money and not have enough to support herself, much less leave her heirs, before she dies.
I'm sure many other, younger people want to have done with it too. I myself, at age seventy-five, feel my life's already been satisfying enough not to need anything more to make it worthwhile -- and I'm still fit (despite recent medical problems), clear-headed, and jolly enough to enjoy being alive. On the other hand, people who suffer grinding pain, hopeless disappointment or failure, or abject poverty may find more solace for dying in death itself than in my kind of satisfaction with life. To them, dying may be a welcome release from the torment of living.
This leads to a final question: Should we try to control death by timing it? I think all reasonable people would like to know in advance, at least roughly, when they will die. I for one hope to die well before I fall apart physically or metally. I and many other people don't want to be profoundly debilitated in old age. We'd rather, like the sufferers in the last paragraph, find our solace for dying in literally dying. We feel our lives might become so diminished that dying would be the better alternative. Unlike the voice-over narrator in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, who at one point says that "the dead know only one thing -- it's better to be alive," we say that the dead's utter obliviousness to such nonsense and their freedom from misery rightly makes them attractive role models to many people.
The only way I know of to try to time death is either to refuse medical treatment for a mortal illness or injury or to commit suicide. While I plan to ponder the first option carefully when and if the time comes, I plan never to do the second, mainly because my own father's suicide would make mine seem like an Ernest Hemingway-like imitation. I simply will not burden my own children with that.
But in general, and with the standard caveats against rashness, immaturity, treatable depression, abandonment of dependents, botched attempts, killing yourself to kill others, and the like, I respect suicide as a last resort for anyone whose life has become intolerable. I see it as a genuinely inalienable right, not because a higher power says it is but because it's available to almost anyone who needs it and is willing to pay the physical price it can cost. Its availability and permanence (if successful) makes it, oddly enough, a sort of sure-fire solace for dying to anyone determined to control his own death by causing it.