Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thanatophobia

Humans are a strange lot. (...That's okay. I'll wait while you go get a pencil to write that down. Just be sure you credit me when you use it.) Ever since our species stopped dragging its knuckles on the ground as it made its way to becoming bipedal, we've been inventing and playing innumerable little games and telling ourselves all sorts of stories to try to distract us from the fact that we, by and large, don't have a clue as to where we came from, how we fit into the scheme of things, why we're really here, or where we're going.

The avoidance-at-all-costs of the subject of death and dying goes back almost as far as the knuckle-dragging. I'd not be surprised if it were discovered that fear of the unknown is built into our genes, and there is nothing more unknown, and therefore terrifying, than death. We invented religion and the concept of heaven and hell not only to curb our wilder and more violent traits with the promise of either reward or punishment, but to assuage our fear of the ultimate unknown. 

Death really isn't all that complicated. It is simply "the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue." It is a natural and inevitable process for every living thing. Yet because we have religion and the promise that there is...well, something...after our cells and tissues not only cease functioning but disappear, we believe that our the ability to think and reason somehow puts us above every other living thing. Yet the fact that we are not superior to a housefly or a rutabaga...just very different...is impossible to fully comprehend. It's nice to feel superior.

Some would argue that without the assurance of...something...after death, we would have no reason not to do whatever we wanted to while we're alive: rape, pillage, burn, steal. I would counter that there is enough of that going on even with visions of heaven and hell, like sugar-plum fairies, dancing in our heads. The fact is that we are a social species. We have set up a system of written and unwritten laws and rules by which the vast majority of us abide and are relatively comfortable with.

Because death and religion have become so intertwined over the millennia, it's hard to talk about one without the assumption that one is also talking about the other. This particular blog isn't intended as a diatribe against religion. But I firmly believe that while spirituality is also a part of every human being, the sins and excesses of organized religion have accounted for more wars, cruelty, and pain than any other social institution.

It's really odd that I, who wear my heart on my sleeve, who love happily-ever-after stories and beauty and romance, do not believe in the concept of heaven and hell. I'd like to believe in heaven. I really, truly, with all my heart would. But there simply is no logic to it. I go back to the question I asked my evangelical Sunday School teacher when he was extolling the wonders of heaven: "If my best friend does something terrible and is sent to hell, and I go to heaven, won't I be sad and miss him? But you said no one is sad in heaven." Organized religion and I parted ways shortly thereafter, with mutual relief.

I have never feared death...which is not at all to say I do not fear dying. To me, it is infinitely logical that death is exactly the same as the time before we were born. No one ever speculates on that, or is the least fearful of it. Nor should they be. Death is merely a return to that same "state of nonexistence" from which we were born. Absolutely no awareness, absolutely no fear or concern. Just the nothing of the deepest sleep. How can that conceivably be bad?

Because we did not exist before we were born, and will not exist after we die, being alive, for however long, is all there is and all that matters. And if we are concerned that the cessation of life is the cessation of our meaningfulness, or our worth, then we should do all we can while we are alive to make a positive difference to the world for all those who will be emerging from nonexistence after we have returned to it.


Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).

2 comments:

Kage Alan said...

Okay, the idea of going back to nothingness terrifies me. It also bores me. What's more boring than nothing? I don't want to sit there in nothingness being bored for eternity.

I believe in something after our bodies die and I'm convinced I'll either be surprised when I see it or I'll recognize it in a heartbeat and wonder why I ever left. Living for eternity has a nice ring to it.

But even fathoming that terrifies me a little.

Dorien Grey said...

I do wish I were able to believe in an afterlife, but logic just won't allow it. And nothing is simply a total lack of awareness. I find no reason for fear in that. I don't look forward to giving up awareness, but once that happens, I'll be beyond caring.