Reader Request Week 2018 #7: Mortality

Well, this is a sort of ironic question to address on my birthday, from Theo, who asks:

Do you think about mortality frequently or do you try to put it out of your mind? Do you think it’s better to ignore it or jam pack as much as you can into every minute with one eye on the clock?

Well, if I’m going to be right up front about it, I neither frequently think about mortality nor try to put it out of my mind. At this point I’ve largely made peace with the fact that I will not be immortal and that I will one day die, and also, that there are probably worse things than being dead.

I suspect this is the case because, honestly, I’ve been dead before — more accurately, not alive, which is what being dead is. However, this particular session of being not alive happened prior to my birth, and we don’t call that being “dead” even if that’s effectively what it is. Whatever you call it, I was not alive for the first 13.7 billion years or so of the existence of this universe.

How did I feel about it then? Well, I didn’t feel anything about it. I didn’t exist. Not existing — not being alive — didn’t bother me; I had no capacity to be bothered about it, or to feel anything else about it. I rather strongly suspect that being dead again will be much the same. It won’t bother me, or make me happy, or sad, or anything else. However I feel about not existing prior to non existence, and I imagine I will feel something about it, will be irrelevant. I’ll just be gone. And that will be that.

I should be clear that I like existing, actually quite a bit, and am in no rush to stop existing. But from experience (so to speak) I know that not existing isn’t so bad. It’s not something I’m afraid of. I don’t fear eternal judgment, or worry that I will miss out on some eternal reward. There’s no eternal; there’s just nothing. Intellectual honesty requires me to note I could be wrong about this, in which case, won’t I be surprised. But I’m not so worried about being wrong that it’s going to cause me to change how I live my life.

Since I’m not exactly afraid of death or preoccupied by the nature of an afterlife, on a day to day basis I don’t give either a whole lot of thought. I don’t hide from it, and when it does cross my mind I’ll think about it for an appropriate amount of time. Then I’ll move on, because I have enough other things on my plate to keep me busy — I have books to write, and places to go, and people to see and pets to pet. It’s a pretty full schedule. And when it’s not full, that’s fine too, since when I’m dead, I won’t be able to lie around or nap or zone out, either. I like doing nothing every now and again, and now is the only time when I’ll be able to do it. So, you know, I’m gonna enjoy it.

I will admit that at least some of my sanguinity regarding death comes from the fact that I feel generally content with my life, which is to say, I have accomplished most of the things I wanted to accomplish when I was younger, and by and large there’s not that much about my life that I regret or would change. There is always more to do, of course, and I would be happy for more things to happen before I shuffle off. But honestly, if I get hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow, I don’t think anyone would say I hadn’t made good use of my time on the planet (well, some people might, but they would be jerks).

In terms of jam packing every single moment — nah. Aside from the notation above that I enjoy doing nothing from time to time, I also tend to be a proponent of quality versus quantity. Being frantic to check things off a list would annoy me after a while. Certainly there are experiences I have not yet had that I would love to have, and I will try to get around to them. But probably not in a wild-eyed sprint against death. Ironically, I don’t have time for that.

If you ever get yourself in a spiral about mortality, I would suggest to you that you remember that you, too, didn’t exist before now, and that, if you think about it, it probably wasn’t that bad when you didn’t, even if it does mean you missed the dinosaurs. So future not existing will probably not be too bad, either, and will take care of itself in any event.

With that in mind, you can focus on the part where you do exist, and make the most of it, however that works for you. Good luck with that! I’ll be doing the same.

33 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2018 #7: Mortality”

  1. You’re right where I am about existence after death. “It’s just like before you were born, only longer.”

  2. Wow, that was quite the profound bit here right before lunch. Thank you.

  3. We are on the same page though I like your connect to before your own birth. If I think about death now I think about the things here I would miss but hope see witness before I kick it. I don’t give much thought to an afterlife. Won’t know till I get there

  4. I don’t feel bad about missing the dinosaurs, turns out they weren’t as cool as we thought they were and looked more like scruffy turkeys. Frankly that sounds more like a lucky escape to me.

  5. I was born with serious medical issues, requiring multiple brain surgeries. I’ve had 17 altogether, the first one when I was three weeks old, the two most recent surgeries in the summer of ’04, when I was 32. When I was born, my parents were told I might never walk, talk, or learn, and at the time it was very common for children with my disability to not make it to their teenage years.

    I turned 46 in January. I figure every birthday I’ve had since my teenage years has been a bonus.


  6. A couple of thoughts:

    1) The first time you didn’t exist, no one who did exist knew you or knew of you. The next time, your absence will, by definition, impact more people. When I think about dying, I think mostly about how it will affect those around me, not how it will affect me.

    2) On a related point, our financial laws enable you to significantly impact the lives of others for years (decades? centuries?) after your death. I’m not asking you to discuss it, but if you don’t spend at least some time thinking about your death from this perspective, then you really should (from what I’ve read in these pages before, I suspect Krissy has already thought about this for you).

    3) Dying is most definitely a process, not an event. I definitely think about things I want to do while I’m healthy enough to do them, because there will likely be a time when I still exist, but am close enough to not existing that certain options are off the table.

  7. Hmmm, thinking of it like that helps up to a point, of course, but as the great Philip Larkin said…

    It’s only oblivion, true:
    We had it before, but then it was going to end,
    And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
    To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
    Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend
    There’ll be anything else.

    …which can be a chilling thought – that was your lot! On the whole I agree, however, just need to make the point that thinking of it like that doesn’t always work.

  8. I’m much the same on the issue of being dead. I wasn’t here before .. .I won’t be here after. If there’s an afterlife I’m gonna be a little surprised and I guess I’ll deal with that then.

    From the perspective that I turned 50 this year I have a little more awareness that I have more behind me than in front of me (assuming I live out a natural life span and don’t get hit by a bus or something), but that’s also not hugely concerning. As with you, John, I still have tons of things I’d like to do or accomplish or see … but not to the point of frantically checking off a bucket list. And I accept that there are some things that just won’t get done because that’s the nature of life.

    I will admit to being a little bit more concerned about the process of dying. Having gone through the deaths of all but one of my immediate family members (and that being a brother who I no longer have contact with), I know that it can be long, painful, expensive, and exhausting. I do worry about not having family to support me when the time comes – and especially about not having family to advocate for me if the need should arise. I also hate the way America deals with death and dying, so there may come a time when moving out of the country is an option.

    But none of those are constant thoughts. They occur once in a while when I have to be an adult and make sure my paperwork is in place or get a reminder that it’s now time to join AARP. :)

  9. Thanks for your thinking. Campbell’s Soup version:You should live your life so that you don’t regret it. Regardless of what happens when you die

  10. “I don’t hide from it, and when it does cross my mind I’ll think about it for an appropriate amount of time.”

    Man, you’re infuriatingly psychologically healthy.

  11. I also plan to be very surprised if there’s anything after. Though I do harbor a distant hope that I’ll wake up one day and there he’ll be at the foot of my bed…


    If that happens I’ll squee with delight, because I’ll know my heaven includes Terry Pratchett.

  12. I can see no objection to your reasonable thoughts on mortality, John. As a person of faith I do expect there to be an afterlife. I have told my family and friends, that if I am fortunate enough to be on my deathbed and aware of the nigh ending of my life, I am simultaneously going to be experiencing two polar-opposite extreme emotions. I will be absolutely excited about the thought that I am about to make the transition to the afterlife to meet my maker AND I will be absolutely angry with rage that if there is no afterlife and maker to meet, that I will never, never, never know that was the case, the fact. In a true sense, your lack of an expectation of an afterlife and the fact that you will be surprised if there is one, means you final passing will likely be a much more calm experience than mine will be. Ever been both excited and angry at the very same time, John? I do not think that has ever been the case with me, but hey, it will be some day I think.

  13. For me it’s not yet dying, it’s aging that’s the issue. I’m 46 and have recently gotten into some things that I’d really like to have done when I was younger and more physically capable. This leads to some pointless regrets about missing out on things that weren’t even vaguely on my radar years ago.

  14. Dear Gary,

    Your thoughts parallel mine, although I don’t have the same emotional investment, because my religious (? spiritual? whatever-you-call-it) beliefs aren’t affiliated with organized religion.* So I’m not strongly expecting any particular experience after I die, though I have some notions. But, whatever it is, that’s what it’s going to be.

    If both of us are wrong about that, well, we won’t be missing anything! Neither experientially nor factually.

    I’ve never been especially bothered by the idea that I would die. If nothing happens after I die, it’s not like I’ll care. If there is something that’s going to happen, well, I think of it as a change of status rather than a termination. And that’s really interesting.

    Whether I will continue to feel this way when death is actually imminent, I have no idea. It’s a lot easier to believe you’ve overcome a few billion years of evolutionary pressure when push hasn’t come to shove. Perhaps I will be screaming on my deathbed, “NO, waahhhh, I don’t wanna go, I don’t wanna go!” Shrug. It’s not like I’m going to be hanging around long to be embarrassed about it.

    The dying part, not so sanguine about that. Pleasant deaths, unless planned in advance, seem few and far between. The odds are not good. I am dubious, even, about the whole “peacefully died in their sleep” thing. Really? Because someone has reported back on how peaceful it really was? Verifiable (and generally accepted) data is hard to come by — understatement!

    I do not believe that getting there will be half the fun! Whether or not there is a there, there.

    (* I use that phrase as a commonly understood term of art, but it always has me wondering — what are the DISORGANIZED religions like?!)

    (** my beliefs don’t see anything wrong with planning it. In fact I consider that one of the great advances of recent civilization, making it legal.)


    At the risk of totally jinxing it — I want to say that I am quite happy to see that, 15 comments in, there hasn’t been one idiot, knee-jerk, atheistic “religious people are just stupid and superstitious believers in fairytales” comment. If anyone’s even thinking about posting that, please don’t. It’s tedious.

    And, no, I am !!NOT!! saying atheists are knee-jerk and/or idiots, I am talking about that especially annoying small subset who are. There are plenty of smart atheists. There are plenty of smart MILITANT atheists. It is possible to have very intelligent conversations, even arguments on the subject. (A girlfriend of mine is, in fact, a militant atheist… and has a graduate degree in philosophy. No, there is nothing dumb about our discussions.)

    pax / Ctein
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery
    — Digital Restorations

  15. @mme_hardy

    I like to think of the words from the Book of Brian, as transcribed by the prophet; Python, Monty.
    You come from nothing, you go back to nothing, so what do you got lose? Nothing! Just; Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

  16. Well, that’s a *very* Epicurean attitude you have there. Which is generally speaking how I tend to approach this issue as well, at least to start.

    But like Brian Greenberg above, I tend to think that death is less about you (because, as you say, you’re no longer around to care) than everyone else who comes after. And I’m not just talking about your immediate family and/or friends/fans, but humanity as a whole. Studies have shown that people actually get much more upset about the idea that humanity itself will die out than they do the idea that everyone they’ve every known will eventually die as well. Belief in the “myth of progress” has been shown to serve the same compensatory function in the face of death for non-religious folks that more traditional religion does for religious people; we are more attached to the continuation of our macrocosmic societies/cultures than we generally admit, even to ourselves, and faith in the continuation of that culture is what allows for such indifference to our own mortality. I particularly like Mark Johnston’s book “Surviving Death” and Samuel Scheffler’s “Death and the Afterlife” on these issues.

  17. While I agree with you that death is simply non-existence, and nothing to fear, there is a nagging query:

    If we are born, survive to adulthood, find a mate or three or not, have families, build careers, own and renovate homes or businesses, see grandchildren, grow old and frail and die, then in a century or less all evidence of our lives are forgotten, shelved, or erased….then why did we bother with all that? Existence has many merits, and many trials. Are any or all of them meaningless? If so, why did we choose to do them when we had the choice?

    The fear of an ultimately pointless existence is probably, in my opinion, why so many want there to be something more, something eternal. Of course, many ideas that might assuage their fears are suggested, but in the absence of proof, perhaps the best we can do is hope.

    Or, choose not to, if that is more comfortable.

  18. My father, a college professor, just died. Many of his students wrote to say how his teaching had affected their lives, and indeed had inspired some of them to become teachers. Their students won’t remember or know about my dad, but they’ll still be learning some of his techniques and attitudes — and those of other people, of course! There’s a chain of teaching that survives even as the individual practitioners die and are forgotten.

    I think the same goes for kindness. The people I’ve been kind to may not remember me long, but the people they’ve been kind to will remember them, and that kindness passes on. It’s a river I can stand to be dissolved in.

  19. Condolences for your loss, Mme Hardy. A great teacher is a gift forever.

    Re: the fear of an ultimately pointless existence … IMO existence itself is the point. We do what we do because [who knows] but do we really need a REASON? Does a garden have no meaning after the gardener is gone? Does a book have no meaning after the writer – or the reader! – is no more?

    The point of doing what we do is to do it. The existence of a cat or bird or fish is not pointless just because they don’t think about why they exist. :-)

  20. Dear Vonne,

    Sounds like it’s time for you to study philosophy. I am being serious. You’re not the first, nor close to the greatest, mind to consider that question.

    Start with, “Why does there have to be a point?” That in itself is a nontrivial question.

    “Ultimate pointlessness” is not a matter that, from a human perspective, is especially addressed by theology, when you think upon it. Mostly it kicks the football a bit further down the field… if it kicks it at all.

    pax / Ctein

  21. If you ever get yourself in a spiral about mortality, I would suggest to you that you remember that you, too, didn’t exist before now, and that, if you think about it, it probably wasn’t that bad when you didn’t, even if it does mean you missed the dinosaurs. So future not existing will probably not be too bad, either, and will take care of itself in any event.

    In one of his Titan books, Varley noted that Gaea knew she hadn’t existed at one time an that there would be a time when she would no longer exist and that it divided eternity into three neat parts. (Or words to that effect.)

    As for me, I proudly wear my “Immortal (so far)” t-shirt even though it turned out to be wrong. (When you can’t even trust a humorous t-shirt, you know you are in trouble.) I’ll keep grabbing for eternity while making the most of my time here.

  22. Dear JohnD,

    Oh, perfect comment-bait on your part, he said admiringly. I must bite at the hook:

    HOW did your “Immortal (so far)” T-shit turn out to be wrong?!?!

    Or is this indeed a communication from The Great Beyond?

    pax / perplexed Ctein

  23. My attitude is different from yours because I still have young children (my youngest are twins under two). It’s very important to me to be around for them until they’re grown — after that, I’m content to go the way of the dinosaur.

  24. There has to be a master craft person behind out existence. If there wasn’t, then we won’t be such emotional creatures

  25. Vonne: Your individual experience of fulfillment, happiness, challenge met, and other good stuff is real. The meaning you find, and build, is real meaning. This is true whether or not deep time gives two hoots (or even one) about it.

    We all have lives to live. Now, we can collapse into misery and inaction…but it’s not like doing that will keep us alive. We still have this time to cross, and will be doing something in it. So why not make it as rewarding as is feasible? It’s not like anti-natalists (the people who believe that no life outcome is, overall, better than non-existence and think we’d all be better off dead and extinct) are having a better time, any more than they’re living longer.

  26. I really liked the “I was not alive for the first 13.7 billion years or so of the existence of this universe” bit. Not because it sounds cool, but because when put like that I now understand better what I already knew.

    As far as the lists, my experience has been that the “things I’d like to do before I die” list, or even the “small things I’d like to do in the near future” list, can never shrink, only grow. Mostly when I check an item off, thinking “I’ve done that properly,” it’s generated two or three more new items in the course of getting it done.

    The big items are hard to rank against each other. Properly learning category theory versus being able to do a basic job of flying an aeroplane? If neither of those is obviously more important to me than the other, how am I going to be able to decide whether I should be writing a series of blog posts about software development or developing a piece of open source software? But I think that often it doesn’t matter exactly what you do: I’d very strongly recommend “become expert at something” to everyone; I don’t think it matters nearly so much exactly what it is you become expert at.

    I look back every few days or weeks or months on what I’ve done and how much I’ve enjoyed it. I look at my limitations and my abilities and my knowledge at the time, and think about whether what I did was a reasonable course to take, and if there’s anything I should be considering changing during the next round. I make sure to remember that, if I regret not having done X, I also remember that I wouldn’t have done Y or Z if I’d done X instead.

    And I take comfort in the fact that, if the universe is pointless, even my worst random “whack at it a bit” plan for my life at least had some thought put into it, some point for at least one person (me), and so I came out ahead.

    Wait, did I just beat the universe? Isn’t that even better than winning the Internet?

  27. Down the street from me is a small cemetery, overgrown with grass and weeds and probably containing more reptilian life than I care to think about. From time to time, I think about putting on long pants and heavy shoes and walking around, looking at the markers. Every one of those people had people they loved and people who loved them, but they’re gone now, and from the state of the cemetery, they’re all or almost all forgotten. But it doesn’t invalidate their existence and it doesn’t mean that while they were alive, they didn’t matter.

    We know the names of hundreds of people who lived hundreds, even thousands of years ago. But there are millions of people who lived at the same time whose names are long lost to the oblivion of history. Thousands of years from now, I suspect only a very few people who we would consider “household names” will be remembered. Such is the way of the world. We are born, we live, we make whatever impact we make, and we die. Some of us will be remembered longer than others, but most of us will fade back into the heat death of obscurity soon enough.

    Oddly, I find this comforting. It takes a lot of pressure off of whatever drive to be famous I might have had. I can live my life and let my legacy, if any, take care of itself.

  28. ctein, I died. Lucky for me, the condition was only temporary…

    (Long story short: I have a-fib and they gave me a dose of something that made my heart stop at 2 AM while they were drawing blood to see if I had also had a heart attack {that didn’t happen until years later}. I basically zeroed out and rebooted before the crash cart could arrive. Scared the heck out of the nurses, though.)