Is this a cliche I see before me? Your classic existential crisis
I’m going to die.
I’m scared of death.
I feel like I’m getting as close to understanding that as I ever will. But of course that’s nonsense. I’m 22, in good health, and in no immediate danger. Most likely estimates would say that I have another 50 years to go at least. But then, in fifty years will I really feel this scared of death? Will it by its very proximity make it scarier, or easier to contemplate? I have young person’s solipsism: I have my entire life ahead of me, and an ocean of potential, so anything less than fulfilment isn’t good enough. Maybe that’s why I fear death. The loss of opportunity, the death of chance and possibility and experience.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been showing more of an interest in physics and the universe recently. Ninety percent of the time that I hear how big the universe is, how impossible an afterlife is, how many dead generations have come before me, it washes over me as interesting fact. But now and then it will really hit. Suddenly I will realise that at some point in the cosmologically sudden future I will cease to exist. The’ I’ in that last sentence. I will simply stop being and things will go on, as if unaware that surely they need my observation to truly exist. Perhaps I have perfectly normal human solipsism. The Battle of Hastings didn’t really happen before I was conscious did it? How could that be? Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank may have been spectacular, but what was more noteworthy was the title: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. In others, sure. I know that people I know and love will die, and though it might break my heart it is not beyond the realms of comprehension.
In consciousness philosophy, they often talk about establishing whether or not something can be said to be conscious. Wittgenstein said it best of a stone and a fly. To an unmoving stone, we cannot attribute a consciousness. But to a fly writhing on its back, legs in the air, we can attribute pain and fear and any number of emotions. Technology experts develop newer and cleverer ways of passing the Turing test, whereby a computer uses complex algorithms in order to fool an observer into thinking it has consciousness. But none of us would ever say that that computer actually experiences consciousness would we? I think deep down we can’t truly believe that other people experience consciousness either. And if that’s how others feel about me, who am I to claim otherwise? Libet’s experiments alone show that I’m by no means as in charge of my actions as I think I am. If you trick a Turing-passed computer into ‘thinking’ that it has consciousness, then it is no better than I.
I digress. Is this some sort of depressive downswing you might ask? Thinking about death is a classic sign. But frankly I think that’s nonsense. I don’t suffer from depression by the way, but we do all have our irrational moments. This is not an irrational moment. This is the very opposite: the addressing of something far more rational than anything else. The fact that I will die is so true and so apparent and so incomprehensible that it goes unaddressed almost all of the time. It is in these brief moments of clarity that I realise all the TV-movie bullshit that I wished I thought all of the time; all of that seizing the moment stuff and taking chances and only doing what I enjoy; the importance above all else of love: that one device we have against what is on the face of it a pretty bloody bleak outlook. I am here for a limited time, and in the process of making sure my footprint will carry further, evolution has granted me these great things called happiness and love. If I am to die one day then let today be the day that I start squeezing as much happiness and love as possible out of life for myself and for the other poor bastards around me. But then, tomorrow I will read this (initially aimed at a short note to myself, but foolishly turned into a blog post) and cringe as if it were a drunken text to an ex or a poem I wrote when I was fourteen.
And that’s what we do isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it. If I was constantly aware of death, it would drive me crazy. I would have to be somebody that I’m not for that constant reminder to be anything but a burden. Some might find it an important part of their day, to make sure they keep pushing themselves to enjoy everything, but I would be too weighed down by that final bit. That bit where, no matter how full my life, the ‘I’ addressing you now will cease to be and where other so-called life goes on.