Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Life, Death, and Dreadful Chasms

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers reflects on death:

It was a hot summer's night. I was laying in bed. And a deep sense of calm washed over me. There would be no me, and thus I need have no fear for that person who would not be. That freed my life from fear. I stopped asking 'who'--a human question if there ever was one. Pascal describes a feeling that I still feel ["...the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after ..."]. It's called the sublime. Existence is sublime. I am here in this time and place, and I have no fear.
Geez, on one level, I want to say, in the immortal words of Sgt. Hulka from Stripes, "lighten up, Francis." On another level, I want to say: no fear? Really? Methinks the lady doth protest too much, and I don't even know if this is a lady doing all the downy-dumps reflecting.

Another adds:
Ever since I was five, I have been gripped now and then by dread and panic in the face of the certainty of my own death and an unshakable faith that what comes after my life is exactly what came before it -- nothing. These episodes usually occur in the early morning as I'm lying in bed, when my mind's defenses are still slumbering. "You will die. YOU". My heart seizes up, and I am sometimes driven to utter an "uggghh" at the thought. The only comfort I have ever found is to have someone I love (a friend, a lover, my sister) sleeping next to me. It is not 100% effective, but I will take it, just as I will take life in all its beauty and horror and hope and dread over non-existence.
Oddly, both of these commenters speak of non-existence as, well, a form of existence, a state of being. The first only hints at it -- "there would be no me, and therefore ..." before seemingly breaking out of it, albeit unconvincingly. The second goes further and expects us to applaud the bravery in accepting life "in all its beauty and horror ... over non-existence," evidently picturing himself in a non-existing state deserving the opprobrium of the community for having chosen to stop existing.

I see no point in addressing death from the perspective of the person who dies. I would like to make the radical suggestion that life is for the living, and so is death. From the perspective of sense, experience, and feeling -- the perspective that's worth evaluating and trying to hone -- death involves the chasm in our lives formed when one of us dies, leaving a diminished 'us,' by which I mean the authentic 'us' of our everyday interactions, not some abstracted humanity-wide 'us.'

What I fear when I think of my own death is the chasm it will form in the lives of those to whom I matter, and I do not, by the way, pretend to understand the precise shape, dimension, or future course of it. I fear this chasm because I have experienced it when people close to me have died, and I don't wish those experiences on the people I cherish. The dread of death that makes sense is better expressed as the dread of others' grief, loss, and regret.

It is fruitless and yet oddly common to encounter a dread of death that resembles the dread of a dull assignment, tax audit, risky surgery, chronic illness, or prison term. We can dread these things for ourselves or for others, but they are dreadful precisely in the expectation of having to endure them. Death does not fit this pattern. Surviving those we love -- experiencing the death of others -- is the dreadful thing.


Reuben said...

Ahem. *The lady doth protest too much, methinks.* There. I said it. Having established myself as a self-indulgent pedant, I also note that, while the sex of the lady in question remains an open one, the second quote belongs to another whose identity is less so given the comfort afforded *her* by sleeping next to a sister. Then again, perhaps they share a special bond.

Your post is well taken all the same. However, I make the following observation, which you may make of however you please. Describing an anticipation of the likely psychological chasm the will open in the minds of friends and family following upon my death (and vice versa) as “being dreadful” is entirely appropriate, for that is a statement of fact. Such an anticipation *is* dreadful, whenever it is cognized. However, describing an anticipation of my future cessation as “being dreadful” is also entirely appropriate, if dread is what I experience whenever the anticipation is cognized.

Yet you are offering more than a description, suggesting that one *ought not to dread* personal future cessation, since that will in no way be comparable to other future lifely hardships (though *dying* surely analogizes). This, as you note, is fruitless. Why then *ought we to dread* the future experience of our losing friends and family (or of them losing us)? Of course that will be profoundly disturbing, as evidenced by the profundity of our disturbance in like past experience, but dread at said anticipation seems equally fruitless. Should we, in any moral or pragmatic sense of the term, deliberately meditate on that future state so as to arouse dread at the prospect when it was otherwise insufficient or altogether absent? That is a silly question of course, and I do not pretend that you answer affirmatively.

Really, I cannot anymore experience the future grief of interested parties upon my death anymore than I can experience being not alive. I can recall my past experiences, modify and project them upon others, but cannot experience the death (or perhaps “deadness”) of me – in either sense! So both experiences of dread are useless, though they are certainly felt, and neither seems rational. At the very least, your core observation that “death is for the living” despite a pervasive fixation upon *my being dead* is a provocative angle to think from.

Dale said...

Reuben, when I say I dread the grief of others, I don't mean to imply *I* expect to experience that grief -- I won't be peering down from the heavens with a sad look on my face or whatever.

I just mean I think grief will result after I die. It will be among the experiences of real human beings here on earth. I dread this on behalf of my son in the way I dread his having to survive his mother and two remaining grandparents.

I *might* be around to help him through those, so in a very limited way -- this is going to make me sound like an asshole, but please take my meaning here -- I dread those a little less.

It would be better, *in a perverse way*, if we were all crushed by the same gigantic rock at exactly the same time -- especially if we didn't see it coming at all.

There's nothing to say about what *I* will experience after I die. The available evidence suggests it will be akin to the longest, deepest, least-dreamy sleep ever -- a non-experience. I don't dread a non-experience.

I do think it makes sense to dread on behalf of others.

Reuben said...

Right. That is how I took the meaning of your post. I will try to be more to the point. Suppose that I am presently experiencing dread at the prospect of my death. I am informed that this is fruitless and irrational. So what? Will someone reason me into feeling otherwise? (That question is not rhetorical).

Epicurus, as you are surely aware, stated that “death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.” Perhaps that is a sensibility that can be cultivated through rational reflection, or perhaps that simply the disposition of particular minds and not of others. I am interested to know whether you think the former is possible and not some mental trick by which one diverts attention away from the prospect to more material affairs. Then again, maybe that trick just *is* the rational cultivation of a sensibility that prevents one from wastefully meditating upon personal cessation.

On another note, I will abandon disputing the appropriateness of dreading my death on behalf of others. I suspect that I would end up having to claim either that we should never feel on behalf of others, since we cannot literally share any of their emotive states, or that dread is like all emotions in being irrational, which are only termed “appropriate” in given circumstances for their evolutionary value or social function. Also I do not intend to be quite that annoying.

Dale said...

Reuben, fair enough. There are hard limits to arguing anyone out of their emotional states. Then again, any counselor will tell you that you talk about emotional states because you can, by doing so, learn and grow and adapt and so on.

I think a counselor, facing a person who reported persistent feelings of dread over death, would start by asking questions like these: what do you dread about it? What, exactly, do you fear? Are these feelings stronger now than they have been in the past, and if so, what do you think caused the escalation?

This is not a beginning of a "conversion" in which the counselor shows how silly the fears are, but of "unpacking" those fears and learning to live with them in a more balanced way. A good counselor, in fact, will pointedly step back from doing too much in the way of "conversion" or "argumentation."

(I am not a counselor, let alone a good one, but let's leave that aside.)

I think it's useful to be as clear as we can be about our emotional reactions, impulses, buttons, and so on, especially when those are the source of unease. I have found this to be true in my own life.

It's not that I don't fear death. When I'm standing at the edge of a height, like everyone else I recoil at the thought of falling. As crass as it sounds, though, i think it's useful to step back from that emotion and ask, 'Ok, what would be so terrible about it if I *did* fall?' and in a non-rhetorical, non-trivializing way, non-smartass way.

I don't claim to know, but I think I'd have a brief and unique experience of falling -- maybe terrifying? maybe weirdly calm? accounts differ -- and then I'd feel much as I felt during the year 1635: nullity. I wasn't there to feel anything. There was no 'I' doing any feeling.

Experience informs me about the perspective and likely experiences of those who didn't fall.

Does that expected grief / second guessing / etc. of others account for everything I still manage to dread about it? No. But there are things in that range of feelings that make sense and things that don't, and thinking it through helps find the line between the one and the other.

We might not be able to stop unreasonable feelings, but it's worth asking whether it should be tried. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Example: getting yourself to be too cavalier about death seems like a bad idea if you have any hopes, aspirations, goals, stuff you like doing, etc.

Another example: I think there's an element of racism and homophobia that comes to most people quite naturally (myself included). I think it's worthwhile to interrogate those feelings and try to counter them because they are demonstrably (a) unhelpful - try dropping the N-word several times in your next job interview if you disagree (I assume you're not applying at FoxNews or for another GOP job); (b) unfair/unreasonable; (c) potentially damaging to others; and (d) potentially self-limiting.

If I just went with the racism and homophobia into which I was born, declaring these feelings I can never argue myself out of, I'd never have been able to embrace Tiger Woods as a hero of womanizing and fake apologies, and I would not have voted for President Chickenshit, who has undone all the damage of the Bush-Cheney junta so completely and masterfully. (I think I threw up a little in my mouth there - give me a minute). I'd never listen to Dan Savage or read Andrew Sullivan or watch South Park, and I'd probably be, in most ways, a moronic teabagger like 80% of my high school classmates appear to be. Then I'd have to kill myself, and the prospect of death scares me shitless.

This has gone rapidly nowhere.

Reuben said...

No, those are good points - the counselor and racism/homophobia examples are fitting.

But hey! Did you see these killer ads from Alabama? May the patriotism overwhelm you and your weapons.