A Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy

Your online porthole into Todd's head.
SEPTEMBER 1, 2009 9:00AM

XIII

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Where do we go when we die?


It seems like such a simple question, especially for the children of a Christian or Jewish household who have been told exactly where they’re headed if they don’t straighten up and fly right right now, young man.  Now eat your peas.

But the fact is that, for all of those Sunday or Hebrew school classes and thinly veiled parental threats, the question of where we go when we go belly-up is still pretty much a mystery.  No one has come back to tell us, and considering that we will all find ourselves in this state of affairs one day, I would think that this question is ultimately pretty relevant to all of us.

As a fat smoker prone to fits of depression who’s married to a wonderful woman with a terminal, life-threatening illness, I find myself contemplating the concept of mortality more than any healthy person probably should.  Still, with all of the insight science has gleaned into cementing our theories about the birth and end of the universe and the world we all share, we seem to get no closer to answering today’s question of the day beyond the recommendation that we keep a current living will, make sure to cancel our cable and refrain from buying green bananas.

It stands to reason, I guess… Even if the superstitious masses had it right all along and we do wind up roasting on a spit in Hell to atone for our sins, or grooving for the rest of eternity while “being here now” with Siddhartha or feasting on brown bread and schnitzel at an eternal stein-hoist in Valhalla with Thor and Wotan, it’s pretty clear that the party’s so bitchin’ that nobody chooses to get their hand stamped at the door to run back and tell us all about it.  That, or the gate security is locked up tighter than a South Florida retirement community, and it would take nothing short of the shades of Harry Houdini or Steve McQueen to schlep our departed loved ones to the nearest phone so they can fill us in.

As an atheist, I’ve long held the opinion that when we die, we just shut off.  No capital-”H” Heaven.  No capital-”H” Hell Nothing.  None of the moral carrots dangled in front of us to keep us on the straight and narrow, love-thy-neighbor path (unless that neighbor is Jewish, gay, black or different from you in any perceptible way).  None of the pious compasses that would usually bar one from beating the guy blabbing away into his cell phone in the unmoving car directly ahead of us to death with a cricket bat (especially when the light clearly turned green a full ten seconds ago) and spiking his dripping, sanguine severed head on his radio antenna as a warning to other drivers.  Game over.  No extra lives or reset button.  However, like many young turks who loved to cause any number of controversies over the span of a misspent (but well-spent) youth, I’m finding that the older I get that even this ultimately sensible and scientifically sound point of view becomes utterly depressing from a spiritual standpoint.

Like seemingly all humans, I have deluded myself into thinking my life is of such universal importance that it can’t possibly end with darkness.  It’s wrong and goes against everything I believe, but I’d be lying if I claimed that it doesn’t stop me from thinking it.

Why would an otherwise sensible person place such a ludicrously overinflated sense of importance on his own life?  And why are we all guilty of the same thoughts?  Death, as a concept, is terrifying to us.  This is mainly because we, as a species, tend to fear what we don’t know.  Add to that the likely eventuality that we’re one of only a small handful of species in our galaxy that possess an evolved enough mind to even be fully aware of our own existence, and you’ll find the threat of that existence’s end becomes even more frightening.  So why are we so afraid of something that is easily as natural as birth?  Do we really want to live forever?  Do we really want to keep aging until the end of time?

Well, no…  speaking for myself, at least.  Any of you aspiring Yodas out there might be perfectly content to nurse the idea of blowing out the candles on your 900th birthday.  For me, I think I’ve pinned down what makes the idea of dying so white-knuckle scary:

I am a human being.  As a result, my mind is evolved enough to be both aware of my own existence and aware that my existence will someday come to an end.  When I die, I won’t miss things like aging and heartburn and aching joints and e-mail spam that promises to add four full inches to my schmeckel and the knowledge that something like Dancing With the Stars even fucking exists.

What I will miss is the softness and warmth of my wife’s hand in mine. I will miss the sound of my brother’s voice as he greets me with an obnoxiously loud “Yo!!!”.  I will miss hot showers and the smell of freshly cut grass and the taste of steak and mushrooms. I will miss reading Superman comics and the feel of a cat or dog’s fur and the fizz of a newly-opened Coca-Cola and the crisp, wood-burnt smell of an autumn dusk and a zillion other stupid things that mean absolutely nothing to the vast majority of you but are the very things that make me happy to be alive.

I will miss experience itself and I am thankful every moment of every day that I have had experiences in my life, in shades of happiness and sadness and the countless array of colors in between, that I would truly give anything to be allowed to experience them forever.

I don’t think I’m alone.  We are not afraid of dying.  We are afraid of no longer living.

And that’s enough.


XII

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religion, life, death

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Welcome to OS. I feel so paternal.... rAted!
I have four cousins by you and NOW you feel paternal?

Hee.
Todd,it's great to see a nephew of Chuck's here on OS. Welcome and happy blogging!
Welcome! Chuck is a better person here on OS than you are probably used to. (Kidding) Great start Lawrence!
It all depends on your point of view, personally I'm being roasted. While my friends get toasted. Do we just switch off? I don't think the brain works that way. We will however never know will we? At least not until it's too late to tell anyone. Not like flipping of the light switch but more like tripping all of the breakers one at a time. Then at long last the question will be definitively answered. I expect darkness, but hope for more.
Wasn't it Einstein who said you cannot destroy energy, or energy never dies? Somethin g like that. I'm not sure if that's tru or if it is, where thsat energy goes. I know where I would like it to go -- to power a Prius.

Welcome Todd. You'll like it here. It's fun. But there's some guy named Stetson you need to watch out for.

R.
Damn, i almost forgot, Welcome to the monkey house.
Welcome, Uncle Chuck's nephew! Nice genes you have there!

BR

Rated
Thanks for the kind words, everyone. It's been a long while since I've written anything substantial and it's always nice to get feedback of any stripe.

@Karin. We believe what we believe because these feelings grant us comfort and strength in times where such qualities would normally be in short supply. I really hope that your version is right, even if it would mean that I've been mistaken.

Oh, and traffic is bad everywhere here.

@john blumenthal: I'll keep my eye on him. Thanks for the heads-up.
Interesting take on it. But have you considered that you might not miss any of that at all because what comes next might be more of the same? Or maybe better?

I was a firm believer that dead meant dead. That is, until my aunt died several times on the operating table. I talked to her a bit after and asked her what happened. She said, "I can't explain it in any way you would understand. I only know I'm not afraid to die anymore. It isn't the end." When she did finally pass on, before her time, I know she wasn't worried about what came next because she felt she already had glimpsed it.
Since that experience seemed to be shared by a good many people over many years, I figure she must have been on to something. I'm not so much afraid of dying anymore as I am that I might be wrong about things. But then I think of Aunt Toni, and what she told me. I gotta believe there's something more.

May I recommend Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End"? I think you might like it.

Welcome to Open Salon, Todd. Excellent post. Rated for sure.
Thanks, Bill. Maybe she was on to something after all and , as I've written in an above comment, this is definitely one question I'd love to be wrong about.

I have never read "Childhood's End" (I'm currently juggling Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Thuvia, Maid of Mars", Kenneth Davis's "America's Hidden History" and Art Speigelman's wonderful "Jack Cole and Plastic Man") but as soon as I finish one of the above I'll have to check it out.
Well, I guess I came away a winner here - I added one book to your reading list, and you added three to mine. :-D

George Carlin said that when we die, our soul goes to a garage in Buffalo. If he's right, I hope it's at least summer 'cause I hear winter in Buffalo is a bitch.
We just have a parenthary attitude toward the rest of the universe.
@Bill S.: Given how much Carlin got right in his long yet too-short life, I'd bank on this. Dress warm.

And "Thuvia" is book four of Burroughs's "Martian/Barsoom" series. It's corny, pulpy fun that seems packed with derivative Science Fiction/Men's Adventure tropes until you realize that it was written long before most of the works that may have jaded you. I'd start with the first book: "A Princess of Mars". It's (sadly) the only book in the series still in print but it the introduction alone will send shivers up your spine.

You've been warned. Hee hee.
Welcome to the madhouse.

(thumbified because gems like "schmeckel" evidently run in the family)
Welcome to OpenSalon! What a thoughtful and provoking post to start here with! I agree completely. I definitely don't want to give up life in order to die.
You must be my Canadian doppleganger because I think about this stuff all the time. I suppose thats because we all get to a point where it becomes so incredibly clear to ourselves that we don't want to go into the great old void and we don't want the people we love to go either.

but we will.
some day.

of course, there's that ultra remote shot (in hell, probably) that we won't have to.
and science will save us.
but that's nonsense because eventually we all will. which sucks of course.

then again, living forever might suck worse when you think about it. living to a point where life has no greater meaning, no breathless sense of mortality is not a place I think I want to reside.

death is the great equalizer. in spite of myself I wish it would equalize somewhere else. but I know better. maybe.
Thanks, Jodi. I love Yiddish.

Thanks for the support, patricia. I actually didn't start with this post. There are a few more prior posts on my OS blog. They may have been easy to miss since they were all bulk imported from my other blog via RSS. Check 'em out if you're so inclined.

@OEsheepdog: Despite being possessed of what I feel is a pretty pragmatic vocabulary I have no idea what "parenthary" means.
@nofrillsmonkey: "death is the great equalizer. in spite of myself I wish it would equalize somewhere else. but I know better. maybe."

That's da troof, roof.

Thanks!
Welcome to the club. It's no Mos Eisly but it's all we bounty hunters have. Great post. Not sure I'd call myself an aethiest but I agree with you that Dancing with the Stars was someone's shit idea.
@GJI Penguin: Preach on!

Thanks for the kind words and recognition of my nerdy references. My question is why it always has to involve dancing or singing or something like that. I'd probably watch something like "Alligator Wrestling With the Stars" or "Handling Plague Cultures With the Stars" or "Broadsword Fighting With the Stars".

Maybe I just want to see Chuck Liddell lop Tom DeLay's arm off with a claymore. I can't be the only one.
Welcome to the land of OZ! I mean OS! Death, A long, or short subject, depending on how far you fall. Being a young Turk myself, a stone age ago, what you don't want is to see, but mostly feel,is your body fall apart!What I wouldn't do to piss a six foot stream again. But, no matter, no one wants to die, but fearing death is futile. Just go with the flow. I see you have your uncle's writing ability. Not a bad person to emulate. Again welcome to OZ, I mean OS, damn I hate getting old!!
@scanner: Yes, sir! I'm going with the flow and slowly falling apart as I write this. Thank you for your kind words.
You're related to Chuck, so I know you believe in some kind of afterlife. What it is exactly, who knows? But, I love your thoughts on it. I think you being here will also help make Uncle Chuck a better writer than he already is! Welcome to the Jungle!!
Great 1st post mon!
I wore that atheist badge a long time, hedonism replaced that theme.
Now knowing what life has taught me Secular Humanism, or Existentialism seems more apropos... Welcome, no one can fill Chucks big shoes, but I like the familiar style...
@MiddleAgedWomanBlogging: Sadly, I don't believe in an afterlife (gotta keep my atheist cred) but this is one argument I wouldn't be on the losing side of, for sure.

@patrick daniels: Third post, actually. Please visit my main page to sample the previous two and following one - http://open.salon.com/blog/tgl1973
And no, I could never fill my uncle's shoes, but that doesn't stop me from shuffling around the house in 'em when he's not around.

Thank you both.
Todd, please call me MAWB or Lois :) You haven't been ghost hunting with Uncle C? You are related by blood, right? This stuff is genetic! You don't have to believe in God to believe in spirits.... trust me! Keep your atheist cred, I don't believe religion has much to do with "the afterlife." I am not a religious person either. I'm a recovering Catholic!
Actually you won't miss it will you? I mean with the power cut off and all? You are missing it ahead of time. Using that empathetic mammalian brain of yours to jump ahead to not having what you have now, now instead of having what you have now. (couldn't be simpler could it?) To be more clear: This is your afterlife baby! Better enjoy it.
Welcome to OS. Great read.
Yeah, I'll miss the breathing part!! ~nodding~ :)

Welcome to OS!!! Great post!! Rated.
@Lois: Yes, I am a blood relation. Sadly, the honor of being my uncle's partner in hunting ghosts is my youngest cousin Ryan.

@Tijo: Of course I'm pre-missing these things! When I'm gone I won't be able to! Do you really want these things to go unmissed? Priorities!

*giggle*

@Tinkerertink69: Yeah, breathing's pretty great, ain't it? Thanks!
Ah, the eternal question . . . almost literally. First post of yours I've read, and I'm hooked. Looking forward to more!
@Owl_says_Who: I'm thankful to have hooked you. Thanks!

More content to come...
Hey, Todd. Welcome. Are you sure you want to invite all your uncle's friends in to spill wine on your sofa, break your tchotckes and stay too late, ignoring your yawns? Well, ok. So, death. I've been thinking about it since I was 9 and my father died. I assumed that I was going to die then, too, and I've been sort of ready ever since. I went through a period of not wanting to die when my mother was ill and needed me, but when she died, it gave me permission to die, too. I don't think of my inevitable death with regret, but I do hope I'll have a chance to say good bye, like my father never did. I do think that every minute is a gift, in spite of bad health, and I appreciate the freedom of not having to/not being able to work. So much to see and do, if only the body cooperates. I'm sorry for your wife's illness.
@Sirenita Lake: It's never easy when someone experiences the death of a loved one, and I can only imagine what it would do to a child whose world view is still just forming.

I am glad that this post drew you here to contribute and I am sorry for your loss. Feel free to stay as late as you like and spill as much wine on the sofa as you want.
Welcome to OS! this is an intriguing post. thank you. and please give my love and prayers to your wife. i've been in your situation before and my heart goes out to you. as for the death thing, i'm big on recycling so i believe that our spirit/energy leaves our human body and then becomes something else. personally, i would like my spirit to go into a singing and dancing well-loved cat but i'm sure i won't get a choice. being just spirit/energy would be just fine with me. these days i'm feeling that people in general are pretty overrated. love love love and gratitude!
@Theodora L'Engle Knight: Thank you so much for your kind words, as well as your prayers on behalf of my family. I agree, at this point in history, humanity is probably the most overrated it has ever been.

Ah, well... to paraphrase the prophet, Popeye: "We yam what we yam!".

I haven't really considered the possibility of reincarnation before, but I have heard that recycling isn't only a good idea... it's the LAW.

Thanks again for your kind words.
Welcome! A pretty impressive first post!
Welcome Aboard Todd! I need to roust out some very nice things someone said recently about all this but alas it has to wait a bit.
Welcome. Your banner is hilarious.
Welcome to OS nephew of Mean Mr. Mustard. Fun writing. rated
@Kirsty McMahon: Thank you. I fear I may have led with my "Citizen Kane". My other posts are jealous.

@Patie: Thank you. I'll wait. I would love to hear a different spin on this topic.

@Cocoalfresco: Thanks. My mother hates that photo, so naturally I included it twice.

@LuluandPhoebe & JRDOG: Thank you for making a body feel welcome.
welcome to the club

the next logical question, is there life after OS?
Thanks, Roy.

I've never thought about it but it's a scary thing to contemplate.
Beats me! I know the answer to Roy's question (YES!) But that's all. So taking the ride into the question with you was well worth the trip.

I'm sure there is nothing I could say that your Uncle hasn't already said--so I'll just say, Welcome!

Oh, and you are seriously good. Be careful with that. Because this is a seriously impressive piece of writing.
@Chicago Guy: Thank you very much, both for the welcome to the site and for your kind words.
Hi and welcome to OS, Todd, nephew of Chuck!

You ask "Why would an otherwise sensible person place such a ludicrously overinflated sense of importance on his own life? " to which I will share my thoughts: True that many people do have an overinflated sense of themselves but that is not necessarily the sole reason for believing life goes on. Again true, no one knows what happens after we die but we are all made of energy and we know that energy does not "die" or disappear, it goes on although it may change form. Therefore it seems reasonable to me that we go on, though obviously in a different form. Not an "extra life" just the same one going through different experiences. Just my humble opinion. :D
I believe that energy can neither be created nor destroyed and that our corporal forms are made of substances that have ALWAYS existed in one form or another on this planet. That, and that our universe apparently tastes like raspberry. Now THAT'S cool!
Thank you so much for this! As the daughter of a minister, I remember going to more funerals than I can count. I am constantly aware of the possibility of death, as you say, more than you should. I enjoy the humor in your blog and stopped reading to read portions out loud to my husband. Thank you for sharing your life with us!