Awareness of dying

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.

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27 Responses to Awareness of dying

  1. William says:

    Science – NOT the Sci-Fi Channel – tells us there are parallel universes, and every time we make a decision, the opposite decision occurs simultaneously and is sent off into another parallel universe.

    This is too big for me to fully grasp, but I think it means this — As Kendrick is eating a grilled cheese sandwich at DQ, there’s another Kendrick in another DQ in another universe chomping on a cheeseburger.

    And maybe, as you say, everything we know begins and ends again and again…

    • Snoring Dog Studio says:

      I hope I get to meet both of those Kendricks.

    • Well, strictly speaking, science hasn’t confirmed the parallel universes theory, or the multiverse, but it has considerable explanatory force. Thanks for the visit my friend.

  2. I clicked over here from your recent comment on Charles’ blog at MostlyBrightIdeas. Glad I did. I read this line in your opener, “a grace that gives us the blessed giddiness of imagined immortality — or at least a vomitously happy stretch of time,” and knew I’d enjoy the post.

    What a composite notion of life and death you wove into those few words. A rollercoaster of a sentence. Having just ready Charles’ post on life and death, I must say that yours, too, is remarkably on pointe for a day like today. Near the end of the year, the cold fronts snagging leaves from trees, and new life becoming — dormant. A concept as odd as the one you propose with this line, “Perhaps the strangest thing we do, as life, is die.”

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • Welcome and thank you kindly for the visit and the words. Indeed, I was partly inspired by Charles’ brilliant post, though Charles has a gentle comedic gift I lack.

  3. Steve Ball says:

    Kendrick, I can’t tell you I enjoyed this post. I’m older than most of your readers and this hit very close to home. I enjoy your depth and perspective. It have me pause. Thanks.

    • Hi Steve. I’m not surprised by your reaction, and I’m aware the post wasn’t upbeat. I have a darker side, and I can’t decide not to have it, and sometimes I need to grapple with it. Thanks for your visit even so. I appreciate it. And now I have a suggestion. Charles, over at MostlyBrightIdeas, has an absolutely brilliant and funny take on some of the same subject matter. In fact, his outstanding post partly inspired my own. Read it, and it’ll brighten your day. http://mostlybrightideas.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/hard-to-grasp/

  4. lbwoodgate says:

    I liked this a lot Kendrick but of course, I have one question.

    “Any would give me comfort over the alternative”

    Why? If there is no consciousness once we pass on, why would it make any difference? If there is consciousness after death then you’re religious views pan out. But we don’t know for certain until we’re there and if it is “the alternative”, how could that make a difference for those who remain?

    • I think different people would answer your excellent question in different ways Larry. For me, I stay in a state of permanent vexation that knowledge of the other side is so elusive. But then, I’m also the guy who really really wishes God would drop by some lazy afternoon and give me a reassuring wink.

      • lbwoodgate says:

        ” I’m also the guy who really really wishes God would drop by some lazy afternoon and give me a reassuring wink.”

        Don’t we all. Take care Kendrick

  5. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Ahh, Kendrick. Is this the somber Kendrick?

    All Shall be Well,
    And All Shall Be Well,
    And All Manner of Thing
    Shall Be Well.

    Is doubt something you can live with? Can you leave a door open for something other than the alternative?

    • Whoa, pulling out the Dame Julian firepower! 🙂 Yes, I like to quote her, but I rarely actually live as though All Manner of Thing Shall Be Well.

      • Snoring Dog Studio says:

        Oh, Kendrick. Wish I could hug you in person.

  6. bronxboy55 says:

    The heat death of the universe — the ultimate state of Why did we bother? It’s hard enough to understand, or even accept, our own demise. How can we possibly fathom the demise of everything? Or maybe it does collapse and start all over again, and again, like some infinite recycling program. As you say, without memory, what’s the point? Which leads directly to the most difficult question of all: what if there is no point?

    It’s probably just as well. I usually miss the point, anyway.

    • Hey Charles, thanks for the visit. Your brilliant post partly inspired this one. I’m jealous of people who reconcile themselves to pointlessness. I cannot. For whatever times remains to me, I’ll be that tiny speck with an even tinier speck of a fist raised to the heavens and raging against pointlessness.

  7. Terrance H. says:

    Like most people my age, I never thought too much about it because I live in the here and now. It would happen, I knew, but so far into the future – I thought. But when my doctor diagnosed me with Lupus six-months ago, my outlook changed.

    I knew the disease because it claimed the life of my mother’s best friend. I knew quite well what it meant. I can still remember the day Paul called to tell my parents what the doctor said. I was on the floor in the living room playing with my trucks when my mom put the phone on speaker so my dad could hear. “Judy, I am so scared.” I’ll never forget those words or the crackle in his voice. He died five-years later.

    Treatment options are better today than when Paul had it, which is somewhat comforting. But treatment and cure are two very different things. So, I’ve accepted, or have tried to, the reality of my situation.

    I’ve only ever told that to family because I don’t like to talk about it, but this post inspired me.

    • You’re quite the instance of stunning surprises yourself my friend. So deeply do I wish for your cure, or at least indefinitely successful treatment. You have a lot more to say, do and feel. Thank you for sharing.

      • Terrance H. says:

        Kendrick,

        ‘Eh, I don’t think I have anymore surprises.

        It’s not something I really talk about much because: 1). I don’t like to talk about it; and 2). This is the 21st Century. The outlook was, at one time, very poor for anyone diagnosed with Lupus. Only 15 years ago, it killed a family friend, as I said. But we’ve come a long way in that time. Since treatment, I haven’t had a single flare up. Before? Twice a month – at least. So, everything is fine, really. It’s just that whenever you’re diagnosed with something like, even if you are responding to treatment, you still think about what COULD happen. I’m lucky. I only wish Paul would have been, too. He was such a nice man.

    • Snoring Dog Studio says:

      I’m sad to hear this, Terrance. Stay well. The world needs you in it.

      • Terrance H. says:

        Ah. It’s no big deal. Treatment is available and it almost (keyword) guarantees a normal life. My only point was that, having heard that news, knowing it killed a family friend, you begin to exercise your abs…

        And by that I mean. learning to bend over just enough to put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.

        I’m lucky, though, that I live in this day and age.

  8. Greg says:

    You could look at this conundrum of dying and nothingness from the Absurdist’s view point (see Wikipedia), which is similar to the Existentialist’s. That is, with a little humor, one can see that it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter. It seems to me that the prison walls are formed by our teeth gnashing over what can’t really be known with any certainty. And it’s our focusing on it that rubs us to no end.

    But I recall in the recent PBS film, “The Buddha,” that it’s these types of thoughts that rob us of today’s life and are the source of suffering. Suffering equating to the teeth gnashing over the ways of the world.

    In the film, the poet W.S. Merwin tells the story of someone who approached the Buddha and said he was leaving the Buddha’s teachings because he never taught about life after death. The Buddha replied, “Did I ever say I would teach you these things?” “No,” replied the man. Paraphrasing, the Buddha said that the man didn’t need to know such things. What he needed to know what what made him ask about life after death in the first place (suffering). What we all need to know is how to end suffering by recognizing there is no “self” that can die. It doesn’t exist.

    • Welcome Greg and thank you for the most insightful comment. Well, yes, to be sure, we could labor to recognize that there is no “self,” but vulgar self almost invariably intervenes with a “wait-just-a-gotdang-minute,” doesn’t it? In a large room full of seekers at an ashram in India in 1984, I was the twitching one in the back. The object was Vipassana (Buddhist) meditation — sitting very still and silent for hours upon hours and becoming mindful of our breath and stripping our minds, on the basis of our breath, of abundant clutter — self-healing through focused self-observation (the theme being self). The master even noticed and commented on my twitching, with a measure of pity and compassion. And so I spent the week sincerely doing this thing, learning to sit still and clear my mind, and I finally did, I learned to sit still, and I felt an extraordinary rush of revelation — even a paradigmatic uplift in understanding the universe a little better. And then I left that ashram, on to different adventures, and never once since that profound experience have I ever sat still in the same way, or even sat still, as opposed to sat lazily. And that is because the self is jealous and craves experience and takes even the attempted coups upon the self as a kind of Cartesian confirmation that it exists, yes? And with the self winning virtually all of these battles, like the youthful Alexander the Great, it comes to wonder fitfully about the end of it self. Hence my post. And it only doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter, and still the self gently laughs with its measure of anxiety.

      • Greg says:

        I agree that if we try to “rid” ourselves of the self, it’s in some aspect, confirming that the self does indeed exist. But that would be the folly of using the method of ridding ourselves. However if one simply goes on a search to *find* the self rather than rid oneself, it’s an entirely different journey.

        A search to see if a self even exists and where it exists, implies I have no evidence that it does in fact exist. I’m going to search with a question in mind, “where is this entity I call me?” But trying to rid oneself of the self, seems like a circular event with no end and is already starting out with an assertion to be proved or disproved, which our mind probably won’t allow.

        If you’ve ever read Paul Tillich’s, “The Courage To Be,” it one of the most profound books from a western standpoint, on the 3 fears humans face (and each fear’s related anxiety). He corrects the notion that people are afraid of dying, they are not in his assertion. We our afraid of becoming a non-being, nothingness. Dying is relatively easy, non-being is well. . . the end of the thing I call me. Of course if that thing (the self) doesn’t really exist, there is no end to me.

        Good topic!

  9. Arindam says:

    I just got to your blog, through your comment on Charle’s last post just above my comment. And what a wonderful blog you have. Though this post was bit terrifying. As I am too young, and want to do lots of things, achieve lots of things in this life of mine. Still you are just perfect with every thought you shared here. Not a single statement in this post was illogical or impractical.
    Really great post Kendrick. Great Job.

    • Thank you most kindly Arindam, and very best wishes with your blog.

  10. m says:

    I always found it weird, that no matter how happy yone is, death is always waiting at the end of ones’s happiness. Even if that death is 10 decades away.

  11. jmgoyder says:

    Your post has me thinking about stuff I don’t want to think about and that’s a good thing!

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