Awareness of dying
November 17, 2011 27 Comments
There is a point in living when you become aware of dying. I don’t mean aware of a disease or any particular ailment. I mean a personal awareness of that dread thing that happens to everyone, an intimacy with the fact of decay that God graciously spares us for most of our lives, despite the fragility of all life always, a grace that gives us the blessed giddiness of imagined immortality — or at least a vomitously happy stretch of time with only blurriness on the other end.
And then time and sentience become in-your-face finite. That stupid vapid phrase — “nothing lasts forever” — it’s true!
The largest and smallest things are finite. Our planet is finite. Our sun and solar system are finite. In five billion years, our sun will exhaust itself, give up, explode, and grow so large that it reaches and destroys the Earth, before shrinking to an ember dwarf of its former self. And even before that, the sun’s steadfastly growing luminosity will extinguish all life on Earth. We could be destroyed by light in as little as a billion and a half years.
Our galaxy, with its hundreds of billions of stars, is finite. We are on a collision course with Andromeda, a much larger galaxy likely to ravage our galaxy and become something new. Even our universe is finite. At some point in the far distant future, all stars finally run out of fuel and die. Many of them persist as smoldering embers for a long time, but life is unsupportable. Sentience disappears. As if we never were.
It’s difficult, to put it mildly, for me to accept this prognosis. The thought of true nothingness, of everything that has been or ever will be, becoming permanently lost in stellar old age sends me reeling into lust for religion. God please give me heaven. Even hell. Anything but nothingness. Any place that remembers. Because the greatest achievement of the universe is memory.
Shortly before my great aunt Dorothy died, she answered a standard social question on the telephone in a disturbing way. “How are you doing?” And she said, with that husky, confident voice I had always known, “not good, Ken, not good,” and she said some other things I don’t remember. But I do remember being struck by her uncomfortably emphatic violation of protocol. We’re always fine. La-la-la, and then, okay, maybe we die, but we’re always fine. And you? Fine, thanks.
Not until later did I understand my great aunt’s words as the simple honesty of someone who knew she wouldn’t celebrate the next Thanksgiving. Even after she died, I felt troubled by that exchange — because I hadn’t become aware of dying. And I couldn’t comprehend how anyone else might confront it.
A little while later, my father with his faltering heart confided that he didn’t look to the future anymore. He found himself thinking mostly about the past. And then he died. Suddenly. The doctor reportedly said he gave up. And I vaguely understood, for a man who had endured a triple bypass and had his rib-cage stretched wide, maybe he just couldn’t accept a life that involved more of that.
My father giving up made a strange sense to me, even though I beat on his grave and wept. My father looking mostly to the past took me longer to understand. My father had become not only aware of dying, but intimately aware of his own dying, just as his aunt Dorothy had. They knew it was over. I sort of understand them now.
Perhaps the strangest thing we do, as life, is die. It makes no sense to be so fulsomely what we are, and then not.
It is a tiny absurdity against the vast absurdity of the universe dying. Every fiber of my being tells me it cannot possibly be that everything simply blinks out someday. Perhaps there is hope in the tiniest and densest point yet conceived by modern physics: the singularity, the true core of a black hole, which physics has yet to fathom.
Because it could be that new universes burst out of the singularity. It could be that our own universe is a big bang belch from a previous singularity. It could be that we keep happening, that we do not finally die after all. Perhaps we could even remember.
And just maybe my father is in heaven, or hell, or in between, or spiritually recycled. Any would give me comfort over the alternative. And if this is the origin of religion, it comes from our deepest place.