"How do you face mortality?"
Individual Brights often encounter queries from others about this issue: Below is an illustrative array of "naturalistic worldview answers" submitted by Brights. Some Brights focused their response broadly on humans in general. Others answered while contemplating their nearness to death or confronting their own demise. How does a human accept personal mortality? (Or, how do you confront your own end?)
Note: This toolbox question was issued in Bulletin 79, February, 2010. Some response items have been slightly edited for brevity and phraseology. There was an attempt to avoid conceptual redundancy when more than one submission said essentially the same thing .
To me, what's important about life is the living, not the dying. My role is to live only for a while, not forever. I'm a short strand in a long rope that stretches back to the beginning of life billions of years ago. I automatically have immortality through my being alive and influencing the world and the "rope" as it stretches into the future. The influence of my having lived lasts forever through the impacts I have on other people and on the physical world. I seek no greater immortality than that. I try to make those impacts the best they can be. They are my legacy to the future. As I contemplate my death, I think about how I have influenced the world and how that legacy will live on after I have died.
The price tag of life is death, but it's still the greatest bargain on earth.
- Author Unknown
The sense I have of my own mortality is that I feel basically unafraid about it… It’s just so nice to wake up, enjoy what we have here and, to borrow from the question posed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, actually feel a sense of wonder at ‘life, the universe and everything’.
I confront my own mortality - or the mortality of this dear feeble body - by reminding myself that "I" am an illusion. This wonderful machine, capable of love, laughter, awareness and misery, is not inhabited by a spirit or soul or even a persistent conscious self. The illusion of being one keeps on arising but in truth "I" am never the same self twice. Since "I" am continually being reborn and dying all the time - why fear death? There really is no one to die.
Ultimately there's no choice in the matter, no control to be asserted or resistance to be raised. A human accepts personal mortality when it comes to him/her, and there is no difficulty in this.
The difficulty only arises in life, by the imagination of the world without oneself in it. How will loved ones suffer? What will be left undone? Peace regarding these concerns comes from recognition of one's finite, although important, place in the cosmos. Your work is done at your death, and the great unfinished work of the universe will carry on. Loved ones will take the experience of your death and use it to continue to weave their own part in the tapestry.
Brights respect the work of the universe for its beauty and magnitude. There is no grudge to be held against its path of development if that respect is genuine.
I am amazed at the fuss and furor associated with death. Death is simply the end of consciousness, like going to sleep. After death, there is nothing for that individual; no joy nor fear. It’s not scary; just nothing. Most of us will be remembered for a generation or two, but that’s about it. Death is obviously quite natural, not supernatural. And it’s not a problem. ...
I don’t seem to have any fear about dying, no belief in heaven or hell, no sense of unsureness or confusion. I don’t redefine words in order to associate myself with God, an illusion. The hype about heaven and hell is clearly an attempt, like all reward and punishment, to influence a person’s behavior. It’s dishonest, based on an illusion, and does more harm than good, as does any lie.
I know from years experience that I am a better person because I WANT to be a better person, not because something supernatural tells me how to behave properly, or threatens me with punishment after my death if I do not. From now until my death, I want to live as fulfilling and productive a life as possible.
In June 2006, at the age of 43, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, and had to face the statistical reality that only 40% of people with my disease survive another five years. We had moved to Tokyo only a year before and had barely adjusted to our "Japan legs"; my kids, ages four and two, were just out of their strollers; and my wife, 38, was looking forward to exotic travels and experiences. My early Death was not on our roadmap! But I've been a Bright my whole life so it's my habit to take whatever comes my way, understand it rationally, and make it a positive addition to my life. By focusing attention on what's most important, my illness affirmed the central role of family and friends in sharing the time I have left. I agree with Walt Whitman's claim that "only the good is universal" because dwelling on the bad makes a poor foundation for a future that takes you progressively beyond the past. I try to dwell only on the universal, on worthwhile efforts, and regrets I have none as I live and die a little each day.
Death, how do I accept it? Well, not with pleasure, I like life too much. But I prefer it to any form of eternal life, a concept I find particularly difficult to get my head ’round. As a human being, I can only function as one, with a brain and body that won't work anywhere else. To be happy in heaven, wherever and whatever that may be, I would have to be changed, and become something else, no longer me. Possible, I suppose, if there were a god to effect the transformation, but I don't fancy it. I don't like the idea of Paradise. No difficulties to be faced, no challenges to be overcome, nothing to lack, no sickness to be cured. A worm could be happy, I suppose, living forever in a pot of cool moist earth. To be happy in Paradise I would have to be changed into something similar. No thank you. So I see my life as having an end as well as a beginning. As a picture or a sculpture has its limits in space, so a poem, a piece of music, a story or a life has its limits in time. How strange it would be if it were not so!
I don't want to die. Like a child who doesn't want to go to bed, I don't want to miss out on what will happen after I'm gone. But I will die. I deal with that disappointing fact by taking care of myself and taking care with my time.
I try to stay healthy and safe. I drive carefully and exercise. But at best, precautions only postpone the inevitable, so I don't invest too heavily in them.
I prefer to spend my limited time doing things that are important to me. I'm thrilled by things I learn, so I read, engage in stimulating conversations, and travel. I find great satisfaction in creative activity, so I take photographs and write. Natural beauty refreshes and renews me, so I spend time outdoors, take hikes, and photograph nature. I am grieved that most people endure lives of far more hardship and suffering than mine, so I contribute to and participate in charitable activities. I'm encouraged and nurtured by my relationships, so I talk, joke, play games, and share meals with my family and friends.
Knowing that my life is finite, I try to make the most of it.
What I was born into: Irish, Roman Catholic.
What I grew into: a realist (we are born, we live, we die).
The idea of spending time contemplating or planning for ‘life’ after death is one that I find both amusing and conceited.
Amusing because a mortal creature with experience of less than a century of life can not comprehend what ‘living’ for eternity would be like. How many pizzas can one person eat? What power source would be required?
Kurt Vonnegut once imagined being in heaven. When he got there, as it was heaven, he got to choose his age. So he decided to be a respectable middle aged man. However, his mother had chosen to be a teenager; and refused to acknowledge him as her son. His father had chosen to be a nine year old boy; and every time Kurt was talking to an important historical character his father would arrive; naked, complaining that the bigger boys had thrown his clothes down the well; that led to hell.
Aside from the amusing, it is conceited not to see what you are: Human. Without death we would be gods. There are no gods, do not get confused.
That no human can escape death is beyond debate, as is the fact that each of us must ultimately face death alone, none of us knowing what it will bring. These things are as certain and unavoidable as gravity. To come to accept this end gracefully, either at the time or in advance, is just as crucial to our development as was individuation earlier in life. It’s the ultimate in the shared human experience.
I too am on the list to leave this planet in the not-too-distant future. I'm not unhappy and regret only when pain takes charge. I can not say that I have done nothing in life that I would erase if I could. I am 88 years old and have this intense desire to have my life end in my own home surrounded by my books, piano, computer, and pens. I live among people who regard atheists as untouchables.
I have the most spectacular son, daughter, grandson and grand daughter. So some of the wee genes they carry is my legacy, all of them extraordinary contributors to a better society. I am delighted to be a Bright, atheist, humanist. While my life will end soon, I enjoy every day. I love living alone and will refuse any institutional placement. I've willed my body to science and documented that I want no extraordinary effort to lengthen life.
If there were life after life, I'd like to have a George Clooney clone greeting me. But, really, I've been an insomniac for years and years. At last I will get some sleep.
How does a human accept personal mortality, specifically how do I?—by contemplating the alternative. We humans often get bored with a spouse or a job or a TV program after a relatively short time. Try to extrapolate your current years on earth out to a million, or a trillion, trillion millennium. What does it mean to exist for trillions of years? What would you do? Even if (when?) we conquer death as envisioned by Ray Kurzweil and others, I would contend that we would eventually choose not to exist forever.
I am aging and not in poor health.
How do I face the fact that I will die soon?
How do we all face non-existence?
First, I ask, "How did I face my non-existence before 1942?"
Do I fret over never seeing Laurel and Hardy live?
Do I feel like I missed fighting for the North in our Civil War?
I never met Julius Caesar or Hannibal.
After my death in 20** I will miss the terraforming of Mars.
I will miss the cure of dreadful genetic diseases.
I might miss the Golden Age of Hydrogen Fusion power.
I realise I will never have existed before Nov. 1941 (not counting
I will not exist after Whatember, 20**
However, I will exist in a distinct world of three spatial dimensions, And the vector dimension of Time.
No matter, I will always exist as a baby born in Dec. 1942.
I will always exist as a Neurology resident (MD) who saw on telly an American take the first step onto the Moon...
I lived during the greatest expansion of Neuroscience so far in History.
And I "am" a part of it.
I always exist in the Time and Space world of 1942 to 20**.
Without any say in it, we came into this world, and one way or another we’ll be going out of it. That’s all we know about that.
But we do know, and to some extent can control, what happens in between. If we’re kind to others, they’re likely to be kind back—or to pass that kindness to the next person. And vice versa. We know our lives stem from other people who died before we were born.
Once, in a performance review, my boss noted I had not achieved a goal set in the prior review. “Yes,” I admitted, “but I accomplished other things that weren’t in the goals.” His message was just do what’s counted. But isn’t it better to take care of what matters, even if you don’t get credit?
We don’t know what really “counts” in life. We must do what we think matters most--for ourselves, for others here and now, and for those who come after. Maybe our names will live on. More likely, we’ll be forgotten. But like a leaf falling in the forest and feeding new life, what we did when we were alive will affect life going forward.
I think that humans are the only species endowed with the capacity to contemplate its own demise. This exists because of the evolution of self-awareness. That is, the down side of being self-aware is that we inherently become aware of our own demise, or death-aware.
People deal with it in very different ways, ranging from a belief in a supernatural chaperone to the heavens to dirt dust. I personally think that a conception of a naturalistic reincarnation is the healthiest. In other words, we are part of nature (Carbon and all that), and our demise is like that of every other species on this planet. We all face the same reincarnative future: we die and feed the earth. We decompose and make anew the natural wonders of the world. This is not as pretty as the religious world view of reincarnation where one joins their long lost family members in a heavenly world of angels and gods and spirits, or is it? By accepting your demise as a naturalistic reincarnation into the earthly order of things, you are being joined with your long lost ancestors: animals, plants, single cellular organism, insects, and so forth.
I have had a privileged enough life that I consider the reality of personal mortality (or decay) unacceptable in itself, so I think it quite ridiculous to exacerbate it with false eternal punishments or rewards (read: an eternity praising a sky-man). Hence, I entirely renounce the notion of immortality and am quite content with my own [mortality].
Furthermore, our technological achievements have enabled our species to transcend physical death (in a collective sense), first through language, then writing, then recording, then mass media, social media, artificial intelligence and I envision soon enough through artificial consciousness.
I guess the only thing to regret is that the arrival of artificial consciousness has been delayed by at least half a millennium through the dark ages, so that we will never be able to "peep" directly into the consciousness of such people as Spinoza, Newton, Einstein, Mandelbrot, etc.
I confront my own death with the adage to live each day as if it is my last. We never know when death may strike, so to speak, so I try to appreciate the people and pleasant moments as they happen. This approach keeps me ready for death because I don't have regrets about not living life fully or treating my loved ones badly. I do not fear death. I fear not living well today.
I have written a poetic requiem which may be appropriate:
My Requiem (two portions)
Don't weep for me when this is past, this life of toil and wonder.
My sentence was those years.
Cry for yourself to honor me that you should miss me so,
No longer there to fill your days with friendly company.
If you have those tears,
Weep your terror that nothing becomes of you when you go.
Don't wait for me to come again or hope for our reunion
Or any other thing
In some unknown place you wish we yet could be, for we will not.
I finally am gone from things which are, whatever it is I was
Or was becoming.
Your time is also coming and when it does you too shall all be naught.
There is only physical mortality. Your spirit, your soul, your impact on the universe, how ever small, never dies. Your "afterlife" consists of the collective memories of those who loved you and befriended you and knew you, and, if you were a parent, in the genes you passed on to your descendants, and, as Clarence, Angel Second Class, showed George Bailey in "It’s a Wonderful Life," in the changes you made in the world by your being a part of it.
This concept is perhaps best set forth by Mary Frye, the Baltimore housewife whose 1932 poem "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep" has brought comfort to thousands:
"Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow;
I am the diamond glints on snow;
I am the sunlight on ripened grain;
I am the gentle autumn rain.
"When you awaken in the morning hush
I am the quick uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star that shines at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die."