This is a dark thought. So if you are at all depressed or suicidal—I’m not, just thinking out loud here—please stop reading and come back some other day. If you are strong and happy, read on at your peril.
The Covid-19 situation has us all thinking, marginally if not centrally, about our own mortality—especially if we are in the age group of the Baby Boomers, whom this disease particularly seems to like. Yes, I could be hit by a bus on the street—or run over on my motorcycle by a semi-trailer truck—and be killed today. Yes, I could develop cancer or some other devastating disease and my life turn terminal tomorrow. Yes, I could get the regular old Influenza A HxNx and die of its debilitating symptoms sometime this year or next. But we haven’t been soaked in four months of statistics about any of those causes and how many are dying each day, each week, each month. This Covid-19 doesn’t sink into the background noise of daily life but remains at the forefront. So, for those of us old enough to take notice, the thought of impending death seeps into our brains.
As an atheist, I am without the comforting option of any kind of belief in an eternal afterlife.1 I know—or certainly believe—that when I die, my mind and my various brain functions, such as thought and memory, will cease along with my bodily functions.2 I will not ascend to some other sphere as a discorporate spirit or psychic wave or sentient vibration. I—the part of me that thinks and plans and hopes—will quickly disappear into darkness. I will not sit on a cloud and look down on this world, on my surviving friends and family, or on any part of my reputation that might live after me, and feel anything positive or negative about them. I will not care. I will be as dead as roadkill, or a tree fallen in the forest, both of which eventually return to dust and their component atoms, leaving no discernible trace in the world. And in a hundred or thousand years, my life will have just as much meaning as that tree or animal among whatever passes for my distantly related family members or Western civilization itself. “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return”—body and soul, or so I believe.
You might believe this thought would be terrifying. That being nearer to death now than at any time in the past—when, as a younger person, I could cheerfully forget or ignore my mortal nature—would make me dread and fear those last minutes, make me scramble around in this life, frantically trying to put off death and preserve every hour, every minute of breathable viability. Or that it would make me rush out to experience every possible moment of joy or passion or novelty this life still has to offer. But that is not the way.
I am the same person I was up until February of this year: measured, thoughtful, introspective, and curiously unafraid.3 I am unlikely to become panicky or rushed just because the death that was always near has come a little closer—but then, ask me again five minutes before the final exit.
From this vantage point, however, I find death is not so scary. In fact, it will be something of a relief.
For one thing, I will find freedom from responsibility. It seems my life right now—and for all the years before this—has been an endless and widening cycle of responsibilities. These days, I must gather and protect my financial resources, because I am unlikely to earn any more against the future. I must pay my taxes, my condo dues, my ongoing debts—even though I try to pay the latter down every month and am careful about incurring more. I must care for my family members—in these days of coronavirus more in spirit than by my actual presence. I must walk my dog four times a day, following along her trail of smells and sniffs, because we live on the twelfth floor and I cannot just open the backdoor to let her out into a protected yard.4 But these are just my largest responsibilities today, and they are shared with almost everyone in my age group.
In my own particular makeup, I have lesser responsibilities that have been with me since childhood. Most are the residue of a lingering obsessive-compulsive disorder; the rest are the result of my upbringing by careful parents. I keep straightening pictures that go askew, as well as area rugs—which must align with the pattern in the parquet flooring—and the corners of my piles of books and magazines. I keep wiping, cleaning, polishing—caring for!—surfaces and finishes. I keep my clothes neat and clean—although I don’t iron them anymore, thank you. I must keep the car neat enough to entertain guests, as well as gassed up, serviced, and ready to roll. I do the same for the motorcycle, plus wipe dust off the shiny surfaces every time I take it out and clean bug splatters every time I bring it back. I worry over every scratch and stone chip in the paint, and chase every blemish with a dab of clearcoat followed by polishing compound. I wash and wax, where applicable, relentlessly.
For another thing, death will release me from the need to be and stay strong. It was the way I was brought up—as I suppose with most of the children in my generation. We were taught by parents who had gone through the Great Depression and World War II themselves to be resilient, enduring, patient, and uncomplaining. When work would get hard or complicated, and I would have to stay late or come in over the weekend, that was simply the price of being an adult. The inconvenience of a head cold is not stronger than the daily pattern of obligations, nothing about which to stay home and pamper myself—certainly nothing to deprive the dog of her walks and for me to resolve to clean up any messes she might make indoors. When my back goes into spasms—as it does in the cold and damp weather—and bending over is hard, that’s not enough to make me stop filling her water bowl, or leave a piece of lint on the floor, or let a rug remain askew. The pattern of life, as established, is more important than its minor disruptions.
Putting up with pain and inconvenience, suffering through that which must be endured, walking with back straight and unbowed into the whirlwind—this is the price of fulfilling my own self-image and the precepts that my parents followed and taught my generation.
Death, when it comes, will be a release of self from the web of life. Even if that is without the option of an afterlife, it may come as a blessing.
1. See, for example, My Idea of Heaven from July 22, 2012.
2. However, brain function may persist for some seconds or minutes after the body stops working. The story is told of Anne Boleyn, whose decapitated head, when held up for inspection, looked down on her severed body and moved her mouth as if speaking. We also know from extensive medical experience that brain cells can survive and be revived without irreversible damage for three to six minutes after the blood stops flowing. We do not die all at once. But those mere minutes are not a basis for belief in eternity.
3. See also Fear Itself from June 10, 2018.
4. But hey, it’s good exercise for me, too.