“Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?” –Epicurus
When I was a believer, I did not fear death. I feared displeasing God, thereby resigning myself to hell. But it wasn’t death I feared. Oddly enough, as an atheist, I do fear death. But why? As Epicurus points out, death is nothing. It cannot harm me because I will be, well, dead. Gone. And Mark twain once made the point regarding death, that he himself had been dead for aeons prior to his birth, and it never inconvenienced him in the slightest. So why should a rational man fear death?
There are a few things I can think of.
First is the method of becoming dead, or the path toward death. I believe George Carlin, of blessed memory, said that no one really fears death; they fear getting dead. And that does weigh on my mind when I allow it to do so. As I write this, I am obese, and diabetic. I have high blood pressure as well. And I am currently living in China during a global viral pandemic. What is my end likely to be? I might die in my sleep, of course. But how likely is that?
As a diabetic, suppose I start dying piece by piece, over the course of years. My systems wearing out, my extremities rotting away– I have neuropathy in my feet, and in part of my left hand. Worrying. Or, suppose my kidneys exhaust themselves and can no longer filter out the poisons and waste in my bloodstream?
It’s possible I could have a heart attack, or a stroke. Not one that would immediately kill me, but one that would leave me crippled and unable to care for myself, setting up a long, slow, downward spiral.
I could contract the CoVid-19 SARS II plague and die gasping for breath.
I live alone. I have no family of my own to care for me. And I live in a foreign county, one not too friendly with my home country, because I am unable to find properly remunerative work at home. How long would I linger, suffering? Or, might I be forced back to America, where I couldn’t afford medical care in any case? What would await me back home? Unemployment? Poverty? Homelessness?
Of course, the Stoics consider Life and Death among the “Indifferents” of existence, though Life is a “Prefered Indifferent.” And my own death is not something I can control (apart from looking after my health as best I can at this point); so it really is useless and a waste of energy to fret about it. What I can control, to an extent, is the state of my health, as I just noted now. And so, I am practicing intermittent fasting, ketogenic diets when I do eat, and I am trying to get my old exercise program going again. In this way, I can try to be as healthy as I can, and thereby mitigate how the state of my health might affect my death.
But then, I must also remember that I am alone and without a family of my own. I have written in my journals and the published portions of my memoirs about having been alone for most of my adult life. I have never, but once, and that only briefly, ever had an intimate partner. I never really minded, to be honest, and I even grew to enjoy my solitude, even prefer it. But as I grow older– I am fifty-three as I write this– doubts are beginning to gnaw at me; I don’t want to die alone.
Which is to say, perhaps, that I don’t want to live alone?
I find myself fantasizing about R., and I don’t mean sexually, per se. Simply living together with someone as a partner, with mutual love, respect, and support. My feelings for R. have already been extensively explored in other writings. But despite my own demi-sexuality, I do miss the fantasy I lived so briefly in 1995. A wife. Children. Working together. Supporting each other. And, to bring it back around to my theme here, my Hanshi himself once asked me, “If you don’t have children, who’s going to love you and take care of you when you get old?”
I still have no good answer to that.
I know that, scientifically, what I call “me” is merely a process. “I” am what my brain does. A human– every living thing, really– is a wave function. Our consciousnesses ignite and continue for a while, and then flicker out. It’s a natural part of the order of the Cosmos. How the universe works.
But I find it impossible to contemplate such a complete cessation of being, of consciousness. Even though I know it is the common destiny of all living things, I find the idea terrifying. To simply wink out, like an extinguished fire, or an unplugged computer. The biochemical bioelectrical process that is me will end. And I hate not being able to comprehend that.
Another facet of my fear was articulated by Marcus Aurelius and Stephen Fry. The emperor notes that no matter what a person does, or accomplishes, Time will eventually bury all, and we and our works will be forgotten, the Cosmos rolling on as if we never existed. Fry once made the point, when discussing how inter-related we all are, as humans, that ost of us don’t even know who our great-great grandparents were. And that is a span of only four generations. So who would– who could— remember my name in the distant future, a century hence? Even were I to have descendants. A very precious few humans are able to leave a legacy that lasts throughout human history.
So even if I had a spouse, children, grandchildren (which I should have had by now, had I known how to live), I would still be forgotten after another generation or so. Though with all the love, pain, joy, and sorrow over the course of such a life, would I even care? I could have said, “I have done what was required of me as a man; that is enough.”
But perhaps I am not so noble.
This is why I write. One of the reasons, at least. This is why I take such pains over my books. This is why I record in my journals, and write these essays. I do not wish to be forgotten.
Still, even if I were a great writer, and had such fame as Chaucer, or Shakespeare, so that my name could be remembered for centuries, what does that even matter? For the sun itself will soon make life impossible on our planet. Complex multicellular life will ultimately have taken up a scant twenty percent of the Earth’s physical lifetime. And then? All returns to the Void, and all my attempts at creation, of being remembered, all come to naught.
But that is the way of things, isn’t it? All living things die. All that exists will eventually pass away.
Of course, I also write as an exercise in Erete, in organizing my thoughts, and to practice my craft. But always, in the back of my mind, is the idea of being remembered– and cared about.
In my better moments, I find comfort in some of the things that Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Sasha Sagan have written:
All that exists was present in some form at the beginning of Time. And the elements comprising our bodies were forged in the hearts of stars. We are part of the Universe, as much as any star or planet, as much as any atom or lepton, as much as any supercluster or void. The elements within us are the same across the Cosmos. We are the Cosmos writ small. We are star-stuff. And our brief moment of consciousness is just as much that of the Cosmos’ as our own. We are the Universe conscious and looking at itself, and wondering. And even when we die, our elements merely return to the depths from which they came. They coalesced for a brief moment in time to be us, and then continued on their way.
And absolutely nothing can change the fact that we have been. We are a part of the history of the Universe, whether or not anyone remembers. We are woven into the fabric of spacetime itself. We are a part of the warp and woof of the Cosmos. We may not see it clearly, because we are such small creatures, who perceive Time in a linear, continuous fashion; but in a sense, we are eternal.
And so, if we are going to be eternal, I might as well do my best to live as my best self, to cultivate my own inner Daimon, and do my best to attain Eudaimonia for myself.
It saddens me that it has taken so long to come to this realization. Honestly, I should have been living this way from forty-five years ago and more. But of course, the second-best time to begin anything is always now.
Now is all we have.