I don’t fear Death. To be clear, I make no claims to being a brave man. I don’t believe I am. I have a deep fear of pain, and people scare the hell out of me. But Death… not so much.
I don’t believe this means there’s anything wrong with me. There are plenty of things wrong with me; I just don’t think this is among them. Why don’t I fear Death?
I have no convincing evidence concerning the Afterlife. I know there are nearly as many beliefs about it as there are people on the planet. They can’t all be right. It’s possible they’re all wrong. I have to begin with this simple truth: I Don’t Know.
If there is an Afterlife, since I don’t know one way or the other, I will deal with it when I arrive. I don’t spend this life trying to secure a good spot in the next one. One of my heroes, a little boy named Theodore McArdle, from the Salinger story, “Teddy” seemed to think he could have been closer to final Illumination had he lived one of his previous lives differently.
“I wasn’t a holy man,” Teddy said. “I was just a person making very nice spiritual advancement… I met a lady, and I sort of stopped meditating. I would have had to take another body and come back to earth again anyway – I mean I wasn’t so spiritually advanced that I could have died, if I hadn’t met that lady, and then gone straight to Brahma and never again have to come back to earth. But I wouldn’t have had to get incarnated in an American body if I hadn’t met that lady…”J.D. Salinger
Now, I find these beliefs lovely, even though I don’t share them. I don’t know them to be wrong, and because I like Teddy so much, I have no trouble in seeing the Beauty in these ideas. And these beliefs help shape Teddy’s behavior, and I find his behavior admirable, so there is even more cause to like these beliefs. Their effects seem to me to be positive. If you knew Teddy, I think you would share my opinion.
Your beliefs are, I hope, as powerful and useful to you as Teddy’s are to him. And I have no reason to believe they are any more right or wrong than Teddy’s.
My belief concerning the Afterlife is simply this: it’s irrelevant.
I know that I have this life. I’m living it. I’m typing at a keyboard I hope someday to replace because many of the letters have become obscured over the years. I must be alive. Descartes aside, I believe I am who my senses and experience tell me I am. I find the interesting and lovely belief that this is all an illusion to be as irrelevant as the Afterlife. I am capable of perceiving the life I have. I’m not capable of knowing anything else.
My beliefs shape my life, too. Since I Don’t Know what will happen after I die, I want to make sure every moment in this life is the best it can be. If I spend a dollar, I can go to work and make another one. If I spend a minute, it’s gone. I can’t ever get it back. It needs to be well spent because I don’t have an infinite collection of them. They will, in fact, run out. And I haven’t the slightest idea how many of them I have left.
I certainly have more minutes behind me than I have in front of me. I’m 56, I’ve been hospitalized for Diabetic ketoacidosis more than a dozen times, and my body is pretty much shot. I’m more than halfway through my minutes. They could end abruptly at the end of this sentence, much as Teddy’s almost certainly did shortly after he explained his view of the Afterlife. I simply don’t know anything except that I have this particular minute.
Why don’t I fear Death, or The End of My Minutes, then? Because there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I could be the healthiest man on Earth. I could take perfect care of myself, and I could live to be 130, perhaps a bit longer. But, inevitably, I’m still going to die. All I can do is put it off.
Being afraid of it would be a product of a belief in some form of Afterlife. Otherwise, Death is just infinite sleep.
To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause… – Hamlet. Act III, Scene 1
I don’t have to share Hamlet’s pause. For me, Death is precisely what I had previous to being alive. I was, to my knowledge, Nothing before I existed. I expect to be Nothing again. I don’t fear Nothing. It’s certainly not painful, and there are no people to scare the hell out of me. There is, in fact, no me at all to suffer.
While I’m alive, I hope that I can live a life such that I can have my one strange, supernatural fantasy come out my way. In the last five minutes of my life, Marc Antony shows up at my bedside. I always have him kind of glowing. And he’s clearly Marlon Brando. And he knows everything I have done, and all that has happened to me, from the time I was a sperm racing toward the egg, up until that very moment. And, in my fantasy, Marc Antony can honestly and objectively reach the conclusion that: His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that the nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man.” That’s all I hope to be able to achieve. I feel like it would be enough. After that, Death is a Welcome Companion.