October 21, 2011

How do you deal with death?

At some point in everyone's life, people consider the possibility of death. They don't consider it well, however. While death as an abstract concept and a state of being is usually easily understood, and many people can often clearly identify when others or other living things die, their own death is never well dealt with. That is, nobody ever thinks that they will die.

Part of the reason for this is obvious: it's difficult to conceptualize yourself not being there. Indeed, even when you envision life after you're dead, you're still envisioning it as if you have a presence that allows you to observe what is happening. The idea that your consciousness will forever be gone is not something that you ever really can consider: you can't imagine your consciousness not existing, so imagining what it truly is like when you're dead is hard.

Another reason is simply because people are afraid of death. The idea that you will no longer be around is an inherently terrifying prospect. Death is something that is feared, and somewhat rightly so. It is something that is permanently irreversible, and nobody knows what happens to your conscious self afterwards. We literally only have best guesses, and many of these guess are outright silly or at best completely unverifiable.

As a result, most people just don't consider themselves dying, or when they do, it is such a fearful thought that they seek immortality. Either they do not realize the imminence of death until it is too late (always saying "I can put this off until later") or otherwise they obsess about ways to "immortalize" themselves. Both are somewhat destructive behaviors if done incorrectly. Sure, not worry too much about what might happen tomorrow is necessary to make it through today, and building lasting institutions and memories certainly are noble and beneficial pursuits for society, but these pursuits can go too far.

Take, for example, the creation of religious concepts of immortality and the afterlife. Some religions believe in reincarnation, an unverifiable but ultimately harmless belief that simply encourages individuals to be on their best behavior in this life in order to supposedly reach a better life in the future, eventually reincarnating so much as to reach some kind of blissful state. On the other hand, there are individuals who believe in a more permanent afterlife, one that can be reached by believing in the right people or doing the right things. This is more problematic.

Those beliefs, when personal and spread without overwhelming social pressure, are at worst harmless and at best have a slight (if infinitesimal) probability of being true. But oftentimes this is not the case. Most of the time, a belief in a permanent afterlife is used by individuals to prioritize the wrong things. Being saved is considered a tantamount priority, but alleviating suffering and making life on Earth better are not. For example, while some Christians and most non-religious people see the plight of the poor in the developing world as a cause for fixing their situation on Earth, other Christians are more concerned with saving their souls. This would not be a problem if the latter group considered it possible to convert individuals simply by example, as being the good people who bring relief and opportunity to those who do not have it might convince them that being a Christian can lead to those good things. However, oftentimes, these individuals ignore all of the other problems that those in the developing world face and only try to convert them.

This usually takes the form of sending bibles and sending missionaries who only try to teach them about Christ without any kind of accompanying physical assistance for the here and now. Such priorities show a people less concerned with human well being. It is a lazy way out, an admission of failure: in essence, such individuals are saying that the problems of the real world are too difficult to surmount, and that we might as well prepare these people for the next life. It is unconscionable, and to say that we should simply give up on this life for the sake of some possible afterlife shows that such ideas are meant simply to alleviate individuals of guilt over the fact that they aren't willing to change this world.

To believe in an afterlife is not a problem, but to believe in such an afterlife so adamantly as to ignore the present world is inhumane. Even if such an afterlife existed, your time on earth is such a unique and irreversible experience that you should try to enjoy it as much as possible. Even the best conceptions of the afterlife generally have you unable to affect the world as you now know it.

In the end, I guess what I'm saying is this: you won't live here again. You won't get a chance to do anything on this planet once you're gone, and any experience you'll have won't be the same. Even if you believe that you'll go somewhere, you aren't returning to here anytime soon, and definitely not in a way that you'd either remember or in a way that you're you. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, you need to act like there isn't one. Otherwise, your life will be wasted.

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