I was stimulated to discuss death today by my ancient philosophy class in which we discussed Socrates trial, conviction, and death penalty. although uncertain of an afterlife, he had some conviction (based on ancient greek mythology) of a continued existence beyond the grave. However, in the 21st century with the rise of science and development of philosophy it is becoming harder and harder to believe in such an afterlife. Anyone who accepts evolution must come to terms with what it means to be just another animal, and many who contemplate this issue conclude the insect and the great philosopher share the same fate; namely a return to the pre-birth state after death in which the self is utterly annihilated and our demise consists of eternal nothingness. The chalk board is erased and torn off the wall, never to have the pleasure of being written on or admired again. The violin ceases to play its beautiful music and the ears which receive the sound waves of life are blocked up for eternity, along with the other 4 senses (or the other 5 senses for Haley Joel Osmond. bad joke, i know). But this raises an interesting question; how is the human being who is suspicious of claims about an afterlife deal with their impending doom? At the young age of 23 I feel I contemplate my own death far to often, and am unsure as to whether this exercise is healthy or not. Having a daughter, the rawness of death is ever more present and tragic. The mere contemplation of eternal separation from her seems highly unfair and as tragic as anything could ever be. Sure this realization compels me to live a fuller, more conscientious life but it also strikes me with spells of uncontrollable fear and anxiety which make my body react as it does when I almost get into a car accident. My breathing picks up, my skin feels hot as blood rushes to my skin, and adrenal gland begins to pump adrenaline into my blood; it basically puts me into a state of “fight or flight”. This archaic evolutionary defense mechanism is not triggered by a saber-tooth tiger as it was for my ancestors, but instead by the mere psychological contemplation of my inevitable death and decay. My deeply ingrained and instinctual sense of self-preservation battles chaotically with my (some would say over-evolved) pre-frontal cortex which is not faced with present danger, but with a danger that, I hope, is years away from becoming relevant.
I know I began this passage with a question, but as I write I am confronted with the fact that I have no answers. It might be consoling, at times, to realize that science tells us that the atoms that compose us will not die but simply rejoin with nature. And I may be able to conjure up some romantic metaphor for death which gives me a temporary sense of acceptance, but ultimately these are just the futile attempts of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to disguise the truth from itself; namely that I will fucking die like a dog and be forever separated from my mother, my daughter, my friends, and possibly most interestingly I will be separated from myself, my best friend: me.
Socrates welcomed his death and showed great courage in the face of imminent demise, if we are to believe Plato’s account of the events. Karl Marx, when asked for his last words, bravely and wittily responded “last words are for fools who havent said enough”. Jesus cried out “Lord, why have you forsaken me?”. Beethoven is rumored to have said, “Friends applaud, the comedy is over”. One of my favorite last sentiments was spoken by Voltaire, a famous non-theist philosopher, who, when prompted by a priest to renounce Satan brilliantly said: “Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies!”.
I don’t know what I will say on my deathbed, or if I shall even have the convenience to utter some last words at all. But if I do have the opportunity, I hope I will be able to look my daughter in the eye one last time and remind her (I am getting teary eyed and lumpy-throated as I type this) but I want to remind her, simply and without unnecessary witticisms, how much I loved her and how deeply connected our hearts will always be, even after mine stops pumping…
Now I must go off to the bathroom to splash water on my tear-stained face and compose myself.