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.