Over My Dead Body

A college girlfriend of mine used to pride herself on being kind of pro-death. She wasn’t goth, per se, but she was certainly contrarian, and when we’d get into existential discussions (far too often for my late teenaged self who was more interested in physical explorations), she’d tell me that she wasn’t afraid of death.

Well, I am, I’d tell her. The idea that everything ends, and you don’t even have the benefit of being aware that it’s over, it’s all too horrifying and confounding for me. No thank you.

She’d one-up herself. “I’m looking forward to it! I can’t wait to see what happens.”

Suffice it to say, she was not a scientific skeptic, and tried to convince me of the existence of spirits and past lives and the like (which she did with some brief success, eager to please her as I was). Death purportedly didn’t spook her because she was convinced that she herself would be a spook.

As an adult, it’s now clear to me that there was more going on there than some college-age rebellion. It’s of course rational to accept death as an inevitable event, and to make peace with that acceptance. It’s another to declare one’s enthusiasm for it. There was a pain she harbored that my 18-year-old self could not have comprehended.

I was reminded of this when I read a piece at The Atlantic by Ezekiel J. Emanuel in which he declares his intention to stop trying to stay alive at the age of 75. The long and the short of it is that he feels that his probable physical and mental deterioration will cause him to be too much of a burden on his loved ones, and insufficiently vigorous for his own tastes. (“It is much more difficult for older people to learn new languages,” he informs us. Well, why go on indeed?) Therefore at age 75 he will stop seeing doctors, forego treatment of disease, and more or less embrace his (at that point) accelerated decay.

I found something unsettling about it, even offensive. I admit that this was almost certainly in large part due to my own fear of death, which, I’m telling you, is visceral, intense, and probably worthy of medication. But I was also put off by the idea that deterioration must equal devaluation. Being able to do and experience less than one used to is somehow pitiable in Emanuel’s eyes. So pointless as to not even be worth existing for.

In particular the way he talks about his father’s aging grated on me. He used it as an example of the terrible fate that awaits us all, noting how his father became “sluggish” and less “vibrant” after a heart attack. I found myself thinking, “Jeez, dude, cut your dad a break.”

My fear of death stems in large part from my atheism and skepticism. I know there is no God, no heaven, no afterlife, no reincarnation, no spirit world (in the practical use of the word “know,” as in, “I know there are no real Klingons”). I know that this life is literally all we have. This experience of being ourselves is 100% of what it is to exist, and that even much or most of that experience is illusory. Without the awareness of being alive, right now, we have literally nothing else. Once it’s over, we’re not even extended the courtesy of having a moment to digest all of it. (“Whoa, that life was crazy. I wonder what happens now.”) Nope. It’s on, and then it’s off.

During the “on” portion, the experience is inconsistent. We’ll start out brand-new and energetic and vigorous, and then we’ll develop, and we’ll age. Illness, accidents, psychological baggage, and plain-old wear-and-tear will take their toll and we will be able to do less. Our brains may process less and at a slower clip. We may get to the point where we can hardly do anything, where most of our lives are physically agonizing, or where we have no idea what the hell is going on (not in the usual, banal sense in which I have no idea what’s going on).

But you know what? It’s not nothing! It’s not the void of death! We can still squeeze out what tiny droplets of joy, love, enrichment, pleasure, even mere awareness that our collapsing meat sacks will allow us to. Perhaps the balance is tilted more toward the side of pain, of torpor, of confusion. And we all may have our own ideas about the point at which those things become too much, when ending existence is a superior choice to experiencing its punishments any longer. Fine.

But I would never put an arbitrary number on it, and predispose myself to speeding up my own demise because I crossed some threshold my younger and more arrogant self put in place. And I could never see myself looking forward to it, wishing for it to come to answer some tough philosophical questions.

Because it will definitely come. There’s no avoiding that. Morbid curiosity will be sated. The scales will tilt to the point of falling over. I see no reason to place my thumb on them now.

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