A friend wrote me a couple of days ago and posed a question every formerly religious person has to wrestle with at some point or another.
I’ve been having a mini freakout at the reality of consciousness ending when I do. I KNOW there’s no life after death, but for some reason the finality of that just hit two days ago. I’m feeling grief and a kind of existential terror at this reality becoming real to me in a cogent manner for the first time.
How did you get past it?
I think it was Twain who said he didn’t have any trouble not existing before he was born, so why would it bother him after he dies? There literally is no feeling. No loneliness. No lack of anything. Ceasing to exist isn’t painful or hard, unlike actually being alive, which is full of such things.
To justify our anxiety about ceasing to exist we have to invent a new imaginary mode of existence in which we would be still around but sad to be gone. But that’s not how it works. If you’re not around to miss anything then you’re not around to miss anything. It’s a null set…doesn’t happen. It can’t. So we’re literally inventing things to be worried about that aren’t even real.
I suppose for coping, I try to replace my anxieties with the company of another person, someone whose presence helps me enjoy life. Preferably I would immerse myself in relationships with people I want to know and connect with, and ideally who will stick around to walk with me through the hard parts of life. My girls, of course, are the one steady thing in my life that keeps me going no matter what else is happening around me, and their love and affection are my life savers.
And of course it helps to build an entire portfolio of things I enjoy and find meaningful, and I try to pour myself into those things, if possible creating things for the benefit of others so that I can feel like I’ve contributed to making other people’s short stays on this planet better.
And more often than not, leaving aside the occasional setbacks when things go terribly wrong and you have to deal with the messiness of life, the truth of which I keep reminding myself is that what you send out eventually comes back to you, and there comes available to you an opportunity to receive back from others what you have given to them: moments of happiness, connection, love, fun, and purpose. And hopefully, occasionally, heart-pounding joy and excitement that makes you so very happy to be alive.
I guess that’s it. Finding what makes me feel the most alive, and then arranging my life in such a way as to have as steady a diet of that in my daily life as possible, especially as it connects me to others in a way that it enables us to share that enjoyment.
I always say I believe in life BEFORE death. I really mean that. I want to work to find those things that make me happy to be alive. Because life is short. It should be lived as fully as possible. And when it comes to the end of it, I want to be able to sit in my rocking chair and drink in the memories of all the places I’ve been and the friends and family I’ve loved and who have loved me in return. I want that drink to be rich and full so that down to the last sip I can find contentment with how I spent my too few revolutions around the sun.
So how about you? How do you process a Big Question like this one? How does contemplating your own mortality go, and what do you do to deal with it?
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