Life

Thoughts About Death, 2017 Edition

Jan 3, 2017

Talking about the prospect of your own death is like talking about your own dreams. No one can consider your mortality with the same level of urgency or interest as yourself. That said, I wanted to lay down some thoughts as I approach the end of my tenure among the living, in hopes that it will ease my existential terror somewhat.

Fear

Death is terrifying to me for two basic reasons. One, the idea of there being a final day – a day beyond which I will experience no more days – is deeply disturbing. Someday, my consciousness will simply cut off. There will be no end credits. No sequel to the movie of my life. All thought will end.

Two, unless I’m very fortunate, my death will be preceded by some sort of horrible illness or injury. At best, I will suffer some level of physical/mental discomfort. At worst, I will plunge into an agonized or intolerable state. I could suffer intense pain, or some measure of paralysis, or failure of my internal organs. I could fall into some sort of locked-in state. I could contract some sort of respiratory illness, like my uncle Steve did in his 70s, and slowly asphyxiate.

After

These fears would all be alleviated to a great extent if I had any firm belief in an afterlife. Although I do have spiritual beliefs, I’m very skeptical about the possibility of a conscious existence after physical death. At most, I think it may be possible that whatever energies generated by our bodies will be absorbed back into the cosmos in some way. I dunno.

Of the afterlife scenarios I’ve encountered, I guess the ones that seem most plausible to me are implications of the possibility that the universe is actually a simulation. If we are all just data in some superintelligent being’s computer simulation, then it’s possible that we will live on in some way. The simulation could run its course and be restarted. (Though I guess it’s unlikely that I as an individual would be born again.) Or “characters” from one simulation could be copied into another simulation. Or something is done with us when we “die” in the simulation where we would reawaken as ourselves, with our memories intact.

I suppose anything is possible, but again, I doubt that I will have any form of consciousness after my brain dies, so I’m not banking on any form of afterlife.

There could also be some deus ex machina in the form of medical/technological progress that occurs within my lifetime, that could extend my life significantly or indefinitely. But again, not banking on that.

Lifespan

I just turned 48 years old. If I’m fortunate enough to avoid serious illness or injury, I think I can reasonably hope for about 20 more years of life before my luck runs out. If my luck holds, however, I could live to about 77 to 82, according to a couple of life expectancy calculators I’ve tried.

Genetically, it’s kind of hit-and-miss. All of my grandparents (except my maternal grandfather, who was disappeared by the North Koreans, so I have no info there) lived well into their 80s, in reasonably good health. However, both of my parents had cancer (which killed my dad).

So, I dunno. But I think if I do my best to maximize my chances, and evade or survive the deadly illnesses of old age, I could make it another 30 years or so.

Time

In some ways, 20 years doesn’t seem like a very long time. When I look at the number 20, it’s terrifyingly small. H and I buy eggs in 18-packs and can go through the carton in a week. So that feeling of time running out adds to my terror.

However, 20 years is also a pretty damn long time. 20 years ago was 1996. Duke Nukem 3D came out in 1996. The first DVD movies were released in 1996.

This computer was the new hotness:

The Internet was primitive. (Hotmail…was launched…in 1996.) I wouldn’t even create my first “Internet home page” until a year later, and I wouldn’t become a “blogger” for at least four more years. That’s pretty crazy to think about.

Add another 10 years to that and it becomes ridiculous. So, if all I get is another 20-30 years, that is actually a shitload of time.

Of course, the problem is making that time meaningful so that it seems like a long time, and doesn’t just whiz past. The problem with getting older is that the years start to fly by. So the 20 years at the end of life don’t feel the same as your first 20 years.

According to science, the passage of time feels faster the more familiar your everyday life is. Taking in new information and experiences is what makes time slow down. So you can make the years feel longer and fuller by learning new information and experiencing new things throughout your lifetime.

Death

I don’t so much fear the actual event of death. I think the brain has features built in to ease your transition, so that you don’t feel very much pain or discomfort. What I’m afraid of is everything leading up to death, and the eternal absence of consciousness afterwards.

Also, I think there are basically two reasons why most of us fear no longer being alive. One is thinking about the impact, or lack thereof, of our nonexistence on our loved ones and the world at large. A lot of people worry about their legacy, or the emotional/financial welfare of their families and friends. At the end, will I be able to look back on a satisfactory life, having achieved most of my goals and dreams? Will I be consumed with regrets?

The other is contemplating nonexistence itself. I will no longer be in the world, to think thoughts or experience things. I will no longer enjoy the company of the humans and non-human animals that I love.

This second fear is irrational, though, because I obviously will not be around to feel any absence of living experiences. It’s a fear that is based entirely on some imagined external perspective that has any emotion or opinion whatsoever in regard to our nonexistence.

Sleep

Probably the best, most merciful way to go is to simply die in one’s sleep. Ideally, there is no fear, no suffering, no terror as one approaches the end. You just slip away in the darkness. However, that doesn’t do much for one’s fear of death while alive. It just makes bedtimes more fraught.

Life

I think there are basically two reasonable approaches to living in the knowledge of your mortality. One is to strive to live a life that you will feel satisfied with when it’s over. (I wonder if extremely accomplished people, like Steve Jobs or David Bowie, died somewhat prematurely…that they could have lived far longer if they had desired to cling to life. But they gave up the ghost, as it were, because they recognized that they had achieved as much as any human could hope for, and that desire to keep going, to keep striving, was simply not there.)

The other is to let go of the drive for achievement or the goal of looking back on a life where you achieved your ambitions, and simply try to live as happily as possible from day to day. Here, I don’t care whether or not I achieve any personal or career ambitions. I could spend the rest of my life just playing video games. But I will die happy if I live so that each day is lived well.

Obviously, it’s possible to live one or the other approach, or some combination of the two. I guess the latter is the most appealing for me. I want to enjoy day-to-day wellness, physically and emotionally, which includes creativity and the fulfillment of setting and achieving goals.

There is nothing I can do to absolutely ensure that I will live to 80+ in decent health and enjoy a peaceful death with minimal discomfort. There are too many examples out there of people who did everything by the book and still died early or horribly. All I can do is try to improve my chances with a healthy lifestyle, and enjoy my life from day to day, without worrying about the last day.

I don’t know when the last day will be. It could be 40 years from now. It could be today.

When my dad reached his late 40s and 50s, he went from a life of terrible wellness choices – heavy drinking, high stress, shitty diet – to exercising and drinking ginseng tonics and obsessively talking about and researching wellness. Nevertheless, he got cancer in his mid-60s and died.

I used to harbor this superstitious magical thought that what killed him was reversing course and pursuing a wellness path. And less magically, dwelling with bitterness and fear about how his efforts ultimately came to naught.

But I now think that what really killed my dad was stress. Whatever else he changed about his lifestyle, the one thing he didn’t really change was his stress level. When he started pursuing wellness, all he did was rechannel his stress into trying to stay alive and well as long as possible. He pursued that goal with the same clenched-jaw determination that he applied to everything else in his life.

So, I think the best thing I can do, as I pursue a wellness path, is to let go of any attempt at control over the outcome. And reduce my stress level in general. I’ll die when I die. I just need to be as well as I can, in body and mind, but also to avoid obsessing over wellness to the point where I become stressed.

Conclusion

Okay that helped.