On death, adulthood, and atheism

Lately I am beginning to feel like the older I get, the more people die.

Which of course is not true. More people are not dying than when I was younger (the most recent statistics I have read show that average life expectancy is actually going up across the globe). The difference is that as I grow older I become more aware of the deaths that happen around me and more aware of my own mortality. I am also more likely to experience the death of someone I know personally, and to watch friends and families be impacted by deaths.

When I was in kindergarten, Dr. Seuss died. It was reported on the radio during breakfast and either my mom or my dad repeated the information. I remember knowing that Dr. Seuss had died. Before the end of my kindergarten year, my paternal grandfather had also passed away. And that was my experience of death as a child: Dr. Seuss and Grandpa Fred (along with Duke the dog and Ashes the cat). I now know that death was as present then as it is today–the 90’s had their share of horrors, from the Yugoslav wars to the Rwandan Genocide. And I had no real concept of any of it.

It’s not because my parents tried to hide death from us, not at all. The radio was always tuned in to the CBC in the morning, and had I listened I would have heard about murders, disasters, wars, and accidents–they weren’t kept from me. And I distinctly remember being nine years old and asking my dad a question which resulted in him referencing Rwanda to explain to me what genocide was, but I don’t remember the question or why the answer would have required explaining the concept of genocide. I do remember hearing my dad say “Hutu” and “Tutsi” and thinking he was just making up words to use in an imaginary example. I was much, much older (possibly an adult) before I realized my dad was talking about Rwanda, and that everything he was trying to explain to me had happened only a year or so before this conversation had taken place.

And yet even then death was not far from my consciousness, always a step or two behind me. The year I was nine was the year my family lived in Riga (Latvia), the first time I could ever really remember living in a big city. My family began to think I was a slow walker because I was always lagging behind everyone on the way to school, but I’m actually very fast. I walked behind my family because I wanted to see all of them; wanted to make sure nothing would happen to them. Nine is the year I began to have nightmares about someone in my family dying, and twenty years later this fear, while more controlled, is just as present. Perhaps the maturity I gained through the culture shock of our year abroad (actually a great thing for kids I think) had more subtle, and less fun, consequences. Perhaps as I opened my eyes to the new and incredible things around me, I also opened them to the possibility of danger and tragedy. Perhaps as my concept of my nine-year-old self developed, I also developed a concept of my relation to the people around me, the people I love, and what it might be to lose them.

Like most people, I am afraid to die. For a long time, I told myself I was afraid because I was afraid of how much my death would hurt the people who love me (which is still something I feel and fear). I didn’t really think about being afraid for myself, even joking with my best friend in high school that when we turned 100 we should buy a convertible and drive it off a cliff like Thelma and Louise, because, y’know, that seemed like a cool way to go and we’ve all gotta go sometime.

Yes, we do all have to go sometime, and the older I get, and the more I see, and hear, and read, the more I realize that grappling with this fact is the hardest and bravest struggle many of us ever face. I understand that death must exist in order for life to exist–but I don’t want to do it. I am afraid of being aware in the moment, and afraid of being afraid. There is no way to prevent it, whether it happens sixty seconds or sixty years from now, it will happen. The moment I was born, the moment I opened up my lungs and accepted my first breath of life, I was signed up for death. No refunds. No backsies. No changing my mind.

This is a psychologically tormenting thought, capable of crushing any thinking person under its weight. In this context, it is no surprise that religion has such a strong hold on those who believe. Sure, there are contradictions and hypocrisies galore and squiffy parts about stoning adulteresses and owning slaves, but when I feel the breath of mortality on the back of my neck, I can begin to understand why reasonable people would be willing to brush all of their doubts aside for the chance to hear “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” and truly believe that one day, one trembling and glorious day, there will be an end to death.

My amorphous agnosticism (coupled with my good luck so far) has allowed me, for many years, to avoid thinking very hard about what happens after we die. When asked, I would sometimes tell people that I liked to believe that people who died went to wherever they needed to go or became whatever they needed to be that would provide the most comfort for their loved ones. That is, if you believe Grandpa is in Heaven, he’s in Heaven. If you believe your lost partner dwells in your heart, they are in your heart. If you believe your mother has become part of the stars and moon and the sun that warms your face, she is twinkling and shining and giving you light all your days. It is a very comforting thought, and a thought that is easy to have when you’re talking about other people, and other people’s losses. But what could ever comfort me?

As I grow older my fuzzy agnosticism is replaced by skepticism, stripping me of my ability to cling to metaphysical comforts, to the talismans I’ve created for myself to ward off bad luck and sorrow. I could almost be an atheist except my sense of skepticism is so strong that as much as I am now having difficulty believing there is meaning in the universe beyond what intelligent beings create for themselves while they are alive, I am also too skeptical to believe that I know with certainty that there is nothing after death. If I can no longer take comfort in the belief in a pleasant after-life scenario, I wish I could take comfort in the idea that this life is all there is, like comedian and humanist Stephen Fry, who narrates a kind but terrifying animated video “What should we think about death?” on behalf of the British Humanist Association:

In the spring of 2011, an incredible Vancouver blogger named Derek K. Miller died. I never knew him, but I did follow him on Twitter and admired his bravery and bluntness as cancer took his life. On his blog, I read about the realities of his illness, about his “living wake” (a huge party where his friends could celebrate his life while he was still there to enjoy it). One day, which surprised me even though it shouldn’t have, I saw his last post. It was written in the past tense. It said, “I’m dead” because now he was, and his family and friends had honoured his request to post his final message after his death. In this post Mr. Miller talks about meeting his wife, having his kids, experiencing life. Derek Miller’s last post may be the most beautiful (and heartbreaking) thing I have ever read.

And also the scariest and bravest. Because Miller acknowledges in this post that he is gone. He didn’t believe he was going to a better place–he didn’t believe he was going to any place. Though he knew his words would still be there, Miller was emphatic that he would not be. People sometimes like to say with a chuckle that no one’s an atheist in their final hours. But Derek K. Miller, like the British philosopher David Hume, seems to have been able to face the inevitability and immediacy of death without holding the hand of any god. And, Miller wrote upon his death, “The world, indeed the whole universe, is a beautiful, astonishing, wondrous place.”

Perhaps this is not a grace that comes easily. In fact, I am sure that it is not. And so I continue the struggle to find meaning in this world, a justification for continuing to take the risks required to truly use the life I have instead of hiding out in a bomb shelter armored in bubble wrap in a futile attempt to stave off the inevitable. To know in the core of my being that the world is beautiful and full of love and yet to have no regrets about having to leave it would be, in my eyes, a crowning way to end a life well-lived. To be able to say, as Steve Jobs did, “Oh wow.”

[But I’m only 28. So I’d be very content, if possible, to wait to have my “Oh wow” moment until I’m a very wrinkly very old lady.]