Death, Actually

Since my last posted essay on Money, I’ve written a couple of other posts that I did not publish because they were just too depressing. I want to chronicle my journey as a writer and include all the highs and lows, but if what I’ve written is simply too dark, I try to spare you all from it.

So let’s talk about death.

Before I dive in, let me say that if you have lost someone recently, I am very sorry for your loss. I’m not writing this because I failed to read the room during a global pandemic. I’m writing this because death is common, painful, inevitable, and writing about painful topics is one of my coping mechanisms. If you’re grieving, what I have to say here may not provide much comfort, but I will happily listen to you and offer sympathy in whatever medium best serves you.

In this essay, I’m going to talk about what it means to die, and I’m going to give my real and non-religious thoughts about the afterlife.

The Human Soul

If humans are endowed with a spark of the divine, then the part of us that remains after our bodies have stopped serving us must be our immortal soul.

I want to believe we are spiritual beings, and that there is more to us than just the meat we are made from. Objectively speaking, we have nothing to support the existence of the soul. We cannot detect it with any of our senses. It cannot be measured. If we are to believe that we have a soul, we can only do so by faith.

If you have such faith, I will not try to dissuade you. I often share in that faith. In order to maintain such belief, it is important not to ask too many questions.

For example, what part does the soul play in a person’s life? Identity? Conscience? Personality? All of those aspects about you change over time. For most of us, the changes are slow, a natural part of aging. But some people are subjected to severe brain trauma that can drastically change aspects of who they are in such a way that they become unrecognizable from who they were before.

There are people surviving COVID-19 that have had their personalities reshaped as a result of severe illness. Some of these changes may be permanent.

If our memories and personality can be so altered by the modification of our brain meat, what must happen to us when that gray matter stops functioning altogether?

I want to believe I have a soul, but I cannot help but doubt. Did my soul exist before I was born? If so, what was I like? What purpose did that soul serve? What good is my soul doing me now? Why should we believe the soul will have greater utility once we no longer have a body and cannot affect the world?

The parts of me that I think are beautiful, unique, and rare are the parts crafted and balanced within my brain. My identity, my perspective, my rational processing of the sum of my experiences. If all those aspects of self disappear when the brain stops functioning, I don’t think it matters if I have a soul or not. I will be gone, and there won’t even be enough of me left to know the loss.

The Act of Dying

Let’s put aside the philosophical for a moment and get practical. What is it like to be dead?

What was it like before you were born?

It was nothing. Neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Not some endless, cold void like being lost in space. You did not experience temperature or light. You experienced nothing. You were nothing. You did not exist.

When our brains stop processing signals, we will experience nothing. No pain. No joy. No worries or delight. Just as before we were born, so shall we become.

Nothing. That’s what it is to die. That last trip isn’t into some great unknown, because we have a taste of it every time we fall into the deepest, dreamless sleep. Our consciousness and our thoughts disappear, and we cease to be.

A Pause to Reflect

These do not have to be depressing thoughts.

It is sad when someone we love dies because the world that remains is not as bright. The laughter and love they brought to the world is no longer with us, and it is right to mourn that loss. Not for them, but for us that remain with the capacity to feel.

For them, there is no more pain. There is no more loss. If they suffered illness or pain up to the end of their life, then death itself is a relief. The suffering is done and gone. Their legacy remains with those that knew and loved them.

It is tragic when the young die because the potential of their life is cut short. It is sad when an old person dies because their wisdom and experiences are lost, and all we have from them is what we managed to record and incorporate in our own lives.

Those that are dead do not experience happiness or sadness. The tragedy and loss cannot touch them any longer.

Life is precious and fleeting because it is only during life that we are able to experience anything. It’s during this time that we matter. What we do matters. We cannot affect the world after we are dead anymore than we were able to affect it before we were born. It’s the time in the middle that’s important, so we should do as much with it as we can, while we still have such agency.

Heaven and Hell

We have no evidence that our consciousness will transport to some other place after death. If you have faith in a heaven or hell, I will not try to dissuade you from that faith. I have shared in it in the past.

The ideas of heaven and hell are meant to persuade people into certain behavior while they are alive. If you are only doing something because you think it will get you into heaven, are you really a good person? What kind of person are you if the only way to keep you from doing something truly evil is to threaten you with fire and damnation?

When I was younger, I asked a pastor what heaven was supposed to be like. The first answer was a cop-out. “Beyond anything we can imagine.” I asked another time, and the answer wasn’t very satisfying. “You’ll be with God, endlessly singing His praises.”

If I am no longer myself, does it matter if I go to heaven or hell? In either place, the bit of me that is unique and special is gone, either in endless supplication to a higher power, or in mind-blasting torment at the hands of the greatest evil.

When I think about my Christian faith, it comes down to this: the message of Jesus was love and forgiveness, and I will continue to live by that message to my dying day. This means empathy, compassion, and kindness while I’m alive. Whatever comes after does not matter, and what I know about heaven and hell is insufficient to change my mind.

Ghosts

Of all the afterlife options, I find ghosts to be the least appealing.

I don’t believe in ghosts. I wrote an entire novel that included ghosts and the afterlife, and that’s where I think ghosts belong: in fiction.

If somehow some bit of our consciousness manages to survive the destruction of our brain, how dreadful would it be to linger, unable to affect the world?

I won’t challenge your other beliefs, but I will tell you that ghosts aren’t real. If a ghost can pass through doors and walls, why don’t they fall through the floor? If they are unaffected by gravity or matter, what is keeping them from simply passing through the world and drifting off into space while the Earth continues to spin around the sun on its cosmic journey?

Aesthetically, ghosts are not pleasing, and it would be horribly boring to be a ghost. I don’t know why people are into them. They are fun to write about, though.

Final Thoughts

Life is precious and short. Too short to worry about the things we cannot change, and too important to waste on petty squabbles.

We should not worry ourselves over death unnecessarily, nor should we shy away from it when it is time to face it. We were not taught how to be born, and no one needs to teach us how to die. All of us will experience both.

It’s what happens in between those events that matters.

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