“Oh my God, I don’t really exist…”

“Oh my God, I don’t really exist…” May 9, 2009

Roger Ebert recently posted a thoughtful rumination on death and mortality at his blog. One paragraph leapt out at me:

I don’t expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. I was talking the other day with Jim Toback, a friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it always does. “Ask someone how they feel about death,” he said, “and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds? No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What you’re really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don’t really exist and I might be gone at any given second.”

Ebert’s views on the afterlife — or Toback’s, or both — differ from mine. But I think we agree, at least partly, on what is at stake.

My own grandmother passed away two months ago, and, thankfully, I was able to visit her just nine days before she died. The next time I saw her was nine days after she died, which made for an interesting symmetry — and I was struck by the differences between the two visits. Here’s how I described the experience to some friends in an e-mail afterwards:

And so, today, I saw my Oma for the first time since she passed. I don’t know what I expected, but I was struck by how, well, dead she was. Her mouth was shut in a straight line. Her eyes were shut in straight lines. I found myself flashing back to the last time I saw her, two and a half weeks ago, and how she held my hand as tightly as she could and looked me in the eye and told me not to cry when she passed but to be happy for her. She was so animated, even then — even in her frail, weak state. Her eyes were alive, and so focused on me, and her hand gripped mine and didn’t let go for several minutes. But now, there was nothing animating her — nothing at all. (But at times I almost thought I could see her breathing. Distortions in the lenses of my glasses? The movement of my eyes affecting how the light comes in?) I think I can admit, now, that when I last saw her in the nursing home, a tiny, cerebral part of my brain began thinking of her as a piece of broken-down machinery, began thinking that all of her thoughts were dependent on an underlying set of software and especially hardware that had begun to seriously malfunction. But tonight? All I could think was how alive she had been then, and how she must be alive, somewhere, now … because if she isn’t now, then she never was. And if she never was, then none of us have ever been alive either. And I simply can’t convince myself that I’m not alive.

I haven’t got time to get into this in any depth right now, but for several years, I have been telling people that my theological starting point essentially boils down to: “Either God exists, or I do not.” And I’m not being glib when I say that; I take very seriously the idea that consciousness may be an illusion, and I respect those friends of mine who are inclined to believe that it is an illusion. I just can’t help thinking that, even if everything we think of as conscious thought really is some kind of deception, then there must at least be something real there, in each of us, that is being deceived.

Anyway. I am still intrigued by the fact that it was possible for me to think in reductionist terms when my grandmother was alive, but it was oddly faith-affirming to process her absence once she was dead. Maybe it’s because I’m something of a contrarian, but in any case, her funeral really was, for me, a celebration of her life — as it was, and as I believe it still is.

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