Religion

Ask Surly Amy: You are Going to Die

Dear Surly Amy,

My husband and I are atheists and we have raised our 3 children as atheists. As a youngster, my oldest forced my hand when it came to declaring myself as an atheist. He pushed me to examine my beliefs. He insisted we stop celebrating Christmas and rename it “Presents Day.” The guy is no hypocrite. I respect his intellectual integrity and willingness to look at the hard questions without rationalizing. This child had an existential crisis at age 6. My oldest is an adult now, and is doing well, yet he still struggles with his own mortality. How does one comfort a young child/young adult/themselves with regard to the finality of death? And the individuals (in)significance in the universe? Who among us doesn’t sometimes have fear and heart palpations at 3 AM when thinking about our own mortality?

~Laika

Dear Laika,

This questions you raise immediately bring to mind a quote by Carl Sagan:

For me it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

Humans are aware of our own mortality and yes, it can be a difficult concept to wrap ones mind around in the wee hours of the night or even in the bright light of the daytime. We, every one of us, are going to die. That is a fact. Religions do a wonderful job of taking that fact and using it to weave a blindfold over the eyes of the faithful. Are those people happier? I don’t know. I suppose they are numbed to some of the pain and fear associated with losing a loved one or facing their own demise but I don’t think that the trade off is worth it at all. I agree with the words of Dr. Sagan and I would rather focus on the beautiful reality that all around us and the amazing statistical unlikeness of us even existing at all.

In the words of Richard Dawkins:

Excerpt from Chapter I, “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity,” of his 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow

To live at all is miracle enough.
— Mervyn Peake,
The Glassblower (1950)

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

So to me, the question is not how do we deal with the crisis of our own mortality but how do we deal with the tiny amount of time we are lucky enough to have? Live life to it’s fullest. Be grateful for the people you get to spend this wonderful tiny amount of time with and do the absolute best you can. Don’t spend your time focusing on the end of the path. Embrace the now.

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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23 Comments

  1. Small suggestion for Laika: sit down with your children and watch Prof. Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe series. He closes each episode, in true Carl Sagan style, with an inspirational observation about the cosmos. Several of these have been about our place in the universe and our part in the vast cycle of the life and death of matter and the stars. These rarely fail to bring a tear to my eye.

  2. I find comfort in thinking my life as a story that I am writing. It will have an ending… So do all of my favorite books. But when I’ve finished the book, Chapter 1 is still there. In the same way, just because I’ve died doesn’t mean my life never happened. I still went to college and traveled and met my husband and loved my daughter. My death won’t make any of that unhappen. Even if it’s forgotten, it still happened. It’s still there — a set of events in spacetime, a chapter in my story…

    When Elizabeth Taylor died magazines ran cover pictures of her taken when she was in her twenties. Once she died she was no longer elderly. All of her life was in the past, and so it all had the same reality. She is just as much twenty-six as she is seventy-nine. I found that comforting when my grandfather died too. He’s just as much the dashing young soldier as he is the cancer patient, now. His story is over, but it’s a hell of a story, and he makes a hell of a main character. And now we can appreciate it as whole, a life well lived, full a happiness and sadness and bravery and patience and love.

    1. Well said! I often think of my life in the same way. What is shall always be. The matter that made me may come together to form something else as well. And I don’t mind if that something is dust or fish food. It is a never-ending story that we are lucky enough to witness a millisecond of…

  3. “Who among us doesn’t sometimes have fear and heart palpations at 3 AM when thinking about our own mortality?”

    I thought that was just me.

    My personal approach is : I don’t think about it.

    There’s nothing I can do about it so any time I spend thinking about it is time wasted. Instead I enjoy every moment I have. I look around me and see myself surrounded by amazing things from jumping spiders on my front porch to a red giant star 600 light years away.

    Now that way of thinking may not be of much comfort to a child so here’s what my mother told me: whatever happens to us after we die we live on in the hearts of people we touch during our lives.

    Mike.

    That

  4. You could try the Ray Kurzweil route… take 250 supplements a day and have daily serum treatments so that you survive to the Singularity when nanobots will be able to repair DNA, rebuild telomeres to reverse aging, and eventually upload your consciousness into a perfect nonbiological representation of your brain.

    Or maybe that’s all just crazy talk.

  5. When I was about ten years old I experienced a moment of clarity that still defines my life. I was in my back yard exploring the sky with my telescope and the full understanding of what I was observing registered with me. I was trying to observe a super nova remnant. Intellectually, I knew what a super nova was, what caused them, etc.. Intellectually, I knew that pretty much everything in the universe heavier and more complex than hydrogen must have been formed in a dying star. Intellectually, I knew that I was, and everything on this planet, including this planet, was made from star dust. Intellectually, that is. I tell you plainly that there can be a vast chasm between intellectual knowledge and true understanding.

    I believe we have three choices. We can exist in the past, constantly replaying the movies of our memories and wondering where things went wrong. We can (try to) exist in the future, constantly rewriting the script for what might be. Or, we can live, here and now. It is your life. Actions have consequences. So chose wisely.

    Everything living thing is ephemeral. Do not waste a nanosecond worrying about dying. It will come to you, regardless. As best as you can, have a good life and a peaceful death. Do what is right, do things that matter and do things that are fun. Do not miss a moment of it.

    If you simply must think about dying, think about this. You came from star dust. Some day in a future you cannot imagine, you will shine again, as the nuclear fuel for a star. That is probably a more glorious immortality than many of us can imagine.

  6. Great responses so far. I was raised by nonbelievers, so I was one of these kids who asked the hard question and didn’t get “you’ll go to Heaven and see everyone you love again!” as an answer. My dad is a physicist, and he said his own comfort is to think of his life as existing always at a certain point in the space-time continuum; much like the book analogy that mks.mary gives. This didn’t especially comfort me, but it works for him. I turned to Buddhism for a while, the nontheistic variety, and I still find peace in focusing on the present moment. But mostly, I cope by (as others have said) not thinking about it.

    Interestingly, my atheist husband and daughter (13) are unconcerned about death. My son (nearly 10) has real mortophobia though. (That’s the term I coined for those bad 3 a.m. “I’m going to die” moments.) I wonder why some people are more freaked out by their mortality than others. I’ve also met theists who are scared. They believe in God, vaguely, but can’t quite will themselves into believing in Heaven.

  7. While it may not actually give you any answers, the short story collection Machine of Death poses a variety of really interesting questions around knowing how you’re going to die. It’s all fiction, but raises some interesting ideas.

  8. Personally, death has never really been an issue for me. When people ask me what I think will happen to me when I die, I just say “I’ll find out when I get there.” Ryu Cope said “I’m an apathist. I don’t -care- if there’s a soul or an afterlife, because what’s important is the life I am living right now. Being a good person has its own immediate rewards.” (not an exact quote)

  9. Literature, for me, helps:

    “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    “Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

    I hope to be uselessly tilting at windmills when the end comes … I think it’ll be more fun that way despite the ‘rage’.

  10. Nothing is certain but death and Taxes.

    My childhood was spent in a place where the night sky was dark and the Milky Way stretched across the sky like a river of light. I would sleep on the lawn in the summer and spend hours gazing up at the stars, with Carl Sagan’s voice echoing in my head. I knew that somewhere, on some flyspeck planet on one of those stars, some young life form was also gazing up at the billions of stars in wonder and appreciation of the visible universe. That knowledge gave me comfort that I wasn’t alone in the universe.

    We’re humans. We have a lifespan of +/- 70 years and we’ve been kicking around this planet for only a brief time, and we’re probably going to be sticking around for another few hundred thousand years. I know I’m going to die, and when it happens, my consciousness will simply wink out and I’ll be gone. The people who knew me fondly will remember me.

    So it goes.

    But life will go on, the human species will continue, and the living planet will continue to bloom with multitudes of living things in a universe teeming with life.

    Life goes on.

  11. I like learning news stuff. A lot. It’s a lot of what I live for. So I have three comments:
    1) I will be bothered that cool new stuff is being discovered while I am not around to experience it. And by bothered, I mean, “decomposing”.
    2) I think there will come a time in the not-too-distant future where we will not die of aging, and the Reaper will have to rely on us checking out with a Darwin award (so, he’ll stay plenty busy). I also believe this will happen after I am gone, but only slightly. That pisses me off :)
    3) I believe the denizens of this universe will never “discover” faster-than-light travel, because it is not there. It is (kinda) like saying, if we wait long enough, science will provide a way for us to move slower than not moving at all. This bothers me too, because it means a lot of the stuff to learn and experience will forever be beyond our grasp – unless we can take (one way) journeys lasting 10s of thousands of years

    Finally,I used to be anxious (a little) about death, but after reading what Asimov had to say about it, I no longer fear death (or life). However, I am not looking forward to the transition.

    That said, with good insurance, and liberal euthanasia laws (or a good friend with a good ax), it should work itself out.

    1. #1 pisses me off, too, but if #2 is true, then #3 doesn’t matter; you can spend thousands of years traveling to the Orion nebula or Santraginus V, and when you get home thousands of years later, all your friends will still be alive and well, unless they’ve Darwined themselves.

  12. “we have raised our 3 children as atheists”

    That turn of phrase troubles me. I’m trying to raise my children to think for themselves. I’m pleased that at the ages of 8 and 9 neither of them currently believes in gods, but I understand that that is their own position based on their (still limited) understanding of the world into which they have been born. (It’s also possible that they’re just trying to please their parents, in which case maybe they could also learn to tidy their rooms and stop bickering for five minutes.)

    1. Thinking for yourself requires a base substrate of knowledge and assumptions as well as training in questioning the ideas and conclusions of both yourself and others.

      “Raised […] as atheist” can mean all this, or it can mean just the first part. “Raise […] to think for themselves” can also mean all this, or it can mean just the latter part.

      Personally I think you can’t have the latter part without the first. Leave out the underlying knowledge and assumptions and you leave young minds open to the first convincing collection of such, whether it’s a cult or Carl Sagan. This basic idea means I at first glance find “raised as atheist” to be an unproblematic idea, while “raised to think for themselves” makes me wary. But as a critical thinker I know that both judgments are emotional ones based on insufficient information.

      Humans never have positions that are inherently theirs, and not taking responsibility for your children’s is, in my opinion, unwise.

  13. I just can’t get inspired by that nerdy quote by Dawkins. What is a potential person? A theoretical construct? I suppose that that theoretical potential person would have his own consciousness rather than mine, but I wouldn’t know it. I suppose the fact that I exist at all is improbable, so I should be grateful.

  14. This is one of the most inspiring and uplifting things I’ve read in a long time! Of course, I know all these this you mention and have read all the quotes before, but it is the beauty of your own words that make this so wonderful.

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