Essay 9: Death
Death. Just the word is spooky. Say it out loud and the temperature in the room seems to suddenly drop. Most humans harbor at least some anxiety about death. After all, at the moment of our death, everything instantly ends. Our relationships. Fame. Wealth. Power. Pleasure. All of it goes to zero.
Mortality among humans remains at one hundred percent. Our deaths and those of our loved ones are assured. It’s part of the agreement. Human life is not a mystery. We know how the story ends. Only the time, place, and manner of our death are unknown to us.
The moment of our death exists on one of the records in the immense jukebox that represents all the moments of eternity. That moment is no different than that of our birth or any other of the moments that collectively compose each of our lives. Recall that every moment remains active in perpetuity; every record in our metaphorical jukebox is playing simultaneously and forever. The conclusion we can draw from that fact is nothing short of stunning. In a very real sense, no one ever “dies”.
This is not magical thinking. It is true that we are no longer present on the records in the jukebox that consist of the moments after our death, just as we were not on the records that preceded our birth. The records that contain the moments from our birth to our death–what we refer to as our lifespan–are playing forever. It is a form of immortality.
To those of us who are left after the death of a loved one, it certainly seems as if that loved one is permanently and forever gone. We can’t reach out and hug them. We cannot share a joke or reminisce. If that were the entire truth, the death of those we cherish would indeed be tragic. Remember, though, that it is incorrect to think of time as the illumination of a single moment that vanishes as the next moment takes its place, that the past is merely something that was. Our loved one remains quite alive in all the previous moments from their birth to their death.
For me, and I hope for you, this is an extremely comforting concept. When my loving, sweet, silly dog died, I was buoyed by the fact that he was still flopping his big body on my lap, that he was still lying next to me in the kitchen as we ate meals, and that he was still driving me crazy to pay attention to him despite my need to accomplish some task. These were not memories. As proven by Einstein, these moments were still happening and will happen for eternity. I could not reach down and pet him in the current moment, but I was still actively petting him in moments past as I would be forever.
So it is with our parents, our children, and our friends who have passed away. While they are no longer on the current record and those that follow into the future, they remain on those from the moment of their birth to that of their death, playing in perpetuity. It is perfectly accurate to conclude that no one is ever permanently lost. That is not faith. It is physics.
Death is also a powerful clue to purpose, perhaps the most powerful clue. No matter your station in life, you will die. Being President, King, Queen, Emperor, or Supreme Ruler will not protect you from death. Nor will all the money in the world, nor all of your accomplishments no matter how fantastic and impressive. Like the powerful, the most successful will also perish.
For many years, I believed that survival was the overriding objective of life. If we die, we can accomplish nothing, learn nothing, experience nothing. Why be courageous? Courage seemed foolhardy if it meant you might put yourself in jeopardy of death. I was wrong. I had missed the point. Since death is inevitable, longevity cannot be the goal of life. No one can win the game. No one can score enough points to get to go again. There must be a different goal, a different purpose. That is what the inevitably of death is telling us.
I recall an encounter a number of years ago with a patient eighty-five years of age. She was seated in front of me in the exam room. I had just told her that the test I had performed on her was completely normal, yet I could see that her concern had not abated.
“So, you’re sure that I am fine?”
“Actually,” I began, “I do see one problem.”
“What is the problem?” she asked anxiously.
“You’re eighty-five and still in excellent health,” I responded. “I know that you are overwhelmed by the thought that your next medical problem might be the one that leads to your death. But when you think about it, with all that worrying stealing your life, you’re hardly living.”
This lovely woman was making the same mistake I had made. It is what you do with your life while you are here that is important, not the number of days you are granted. Courage is not the risk I had assumed it to be. Courage is a recognition that longevity is not the goal of life.
I think about death every day. I do so not because I fear or am obsessed with death. Neither is true. Death is like a daily alert that urges me to not waste my day, to make certain that I spend my time engaged in life. The thought of death keeps me focused on experiencing, learning, and most importantly assisting others.
Everyone eats and drinks. Everyone gets ill. Everyone laughs. Everyone feels lonely sometimes. Everyone has good days and bad days. These are all expected events in life. As is death. Perhaps we make more of it than we should.
We end with this wonderful quote from Carlo Rovelli, renowned physicist and author:
Fearing the transition, being afraid of death, is like being afraid of reality itself; like being afraid of the sun. Whatever for?
Next: Our Common Purpose
When: May 18, 2022