Popular Posts

Sunday, September 2, 2012

After Life: A Unitarian View of Mortality

"Transformations" by Thomas Hardy
Portion of this yew
Is a man my grandsire knew.
Bosomed here at its foot,
This branch may be his wife:
A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot.

These grasses must be made
Of her who often prayed,
Last century, for repose;
And the fair girl long ago,
Whom I often tried to know,
May be entering this rose.

So, they are not underground,
But as nerves and veins abound
In the growths of upper air.
And they feel the sun and rain,
And the energy again
That made them what they were!
Well: here’s a cheery topic for a sunny Sunday on the very cusp of a southern hemisphere spring. That poem is one I usually reserve for Easter, as it is really not about death, but re-birth. It also confirms something I’ve always known about the English: they are pagans at heart. Or perhaps more charitably,  “eco-spiritualists”. Though set in a country churchyard, Hardy’s poem offers an essentially materialist view of immortality: the stuff that was you becomes the raw material for new life. Matter doesn’t disappear, it merely transforms. Of course, you don’t experience this new life in any direct sense: you are gone. The trees and grass and flowers you become, while living, aren’t conscious, at least not in the way we are at this living moment. So this materialist re-birth both is and isn’t you, and when we think about it, such a transformation is probably rather cold comfort. Knowing our matter transforms does not really quiet what we really fear: the end of the ‘selves’ we are right now.

as nice a place as any to put your bits  
Hardy’s lovely materialist view is what we can know for sure will happen to us After Life. But beyond that…? Call it what you will, consciousness, soul, spirit, awareness, our essence, ‘who we are’—what happens to that after our lives are over? Answering this is arguably all religions’ raison d’etre.  Hobbes wrote that all religions derive from this fear, and the subsequent field of psychology tends to agree. The Abrahamic faiths offer the consolation that you never do lose the self--we never die in the sense of oblivion. Instead, we are assessed according to how we lived this life, and then spend all eternity enjoying the reward or paying the debt. Death as a cosmic settling of the bill is thought to be one of the reasons many people have turned from these traditions: the mythology of heaven and hell became literalized and rather than merely being figurative inducements to live a good life, they became a literal celestial architecture--that failed to be observable once we had telescopes. Like discovering the elaborate lie of Santa Claus, post-enlightenment western culture has never really forgiven these religions for ‘lying’ to us so elaborately about our mortality.

It’s not just western religions—death’s not actually fatal for Buddhists either. Likewise for the Buddhist, there is no death for the simple reason there is no ‘self’. All our memories, desire, anxieties, attachments, and such that make up our ‘self’ is but a persuasive illusion that distracts us from the reality of pure collective consciousness—our “Buddha nature”—which we share with all sentient beings. This true nature is unborn and therefore undying, and all Buddhist practice involves detachment from the illusion of ‘self’. Our egos don’t like this and fight hard against the practices, which is why Buddhist practices are hard. But the aim of all Buddhist practice is to annihilate that ego. Since there’s no self there,  no one perishes, and thus the enlightened can handle death with equanimity.

A Buddhist parable of how the practice prepares one for death involves a monk who kept a teacup by his bed. When he went to bed each night, he emptied it; when he woke each day, he righted it. When a puzzled novice asked him about it, the monk explained that emptying the cup represented his acquiescence to his own mortality—it reminded him that since he had done all the things he had to do that day, he was ready for death to come to him. Each morning when he righted the cup, it means he was ready to accept the gift of a new day. Taking it “one day at a time”, as they say.

The Buddhist approach accords with that of the Greek and Roman stoic philosophers who remind us that it is non-sensical to fear death. As it either a dreamless sleep or a new kind of life. Either way, nothing to dread.  Lucretius in his tract On The Nature of Things says that our self after life is in exactly the same state as it was BEFORE life. We have no anxiety, no fear about the time before we were born, so it makes no sense to have anxiety and fear about the time after our lives. Stoics overcome the fear by making death nothing.

And yet, excellent despite such excellent advice from east and west, we human quaking sacks of unenlightened meat do not tend to live with any equanimity about dying. We spend much of our lives in what Sartre called a counterfeit immortality—lying to ourselves in effect—believing that this state of being we’re in will go on forever, and so we spend our lives evading and escaping death by inventing fanciful beliefs in an afterlife, cryogenic freezing, or the idea that if we’re lucky we can be continually renewed physically through medicine, and other such science fictions. We get fooled by lasting a long time, mistaking that for permanence. We never think it will happen to us. Like a careful driver who’s never had an accident, you begin to think you’re invincible rather than simply fortunate. The death of others may cause us grief, we may fantasize about our work living after us, or our genes travelling through time in our children, but our own death for most of us remains a conceptual impossibility because the state of being dead cannot be imagined by a being who is not. 

Oblivion is more total than we can ever bring ourselves to even try to imagine. Certain. Indeterminate. Invincible. And entirely personal—the meaning of your death can’t be understood through the death of others. It’s yours alone.

A religion that can’t offer some way of coping with what happens after life isn’t going to be very popular. There’s more cash flow in peddling fantasy, and one of the functions of religion is the social utility of keeping everyone calm, and diverting them from the fact that they are all on a kind of slow fire. I’ve always found far more consolation for mortality in poetry than in religion; if the poet can face it and even make beauty of it, at least I know I’m not alone in my fears and longings. Take this poem by Philip Larkin. “Aubade”. (Literature geek alert: An aubade is a morning love song about lovers separating at dawn).

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
--The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused--
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

That is without question the bravest thing I’ve ever read on the subject. Not a shred of sentiment. Not a flicker of the man flinching. Larkin faces the horrible thing, and somehow his facing it, and his way of saying it, makes the thing less scary. He has to work that day and so gets up and does. As if to say—“Miles to go yet, before I sleep.”

We in the  21st century have created, or at least subscribed to, a materialist view of our life, and yet many persist in imagining their after life to be immaterial but continuing. We are very confused on the subject. Like Hardy in the poem, I too used imagine the bits that were me becoming trees and grass and flowers, and so into insects and birds, and mist. And rain. Comforted me to know I would still be at home in this lovely blue-green world and more intimately part of its workings, nourishing in my After Life more broadly and deeply than ever I would have been able to in my Before Life. I even planned to be buried in a simple biodegradable box with a Maryland white pine planted over it, the better to haste the material bits on their way into that service of unfolding life.

And the fantasy didn’t end there, for I also imagined my collected works—this address included—being passed down to my children and theirs and so on down the genealogical line, so the best of my spirit was preserved like essential oil. And that essence  would go on in all the people I had taught or touched in my life or who had loved me and I them, and so I would remain a part of them in some obscure, though lasting, way. And oh, the funeral I imagined! The serried ranks of mourners from near and far and past and present having the occasion to put into words what they thought was best in me, that best of me they would cherish and hold fast in their memory. And a broken voiced granddaughter reading by the upturned clods of soil, from a poet, again--

Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft star-shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

Like Woody Allen I want to achieve immortality by not actually dying. And embarrassing as my fantasy is to relate, we all harbour similar thoughts. But none of that fantasy is actually about dying—it’s about living forever.

Material immortality related by that poet and by Hardy is perhaps life’s final and most enduring vanity. Because if you think about it, all the mourners will pass away too and everyone that’s ever even heard of me will too, until there will one day be no one left who knew or even heard of me. And the tree they plant above me will one day turn to dust and all the other trees it seeds likewise. The insects and microbes that fed on it and them and me will likewise pass away and their offspring, as well as the birds that fed on them and THEIR offspring and so on ad ridiculum. And before maybe three or four generations it will be as if I never existed, and people will think no more of me than they do of Johann Schmidt born 1662 died 1741 in Augsburg, Germany. And in the more distant future we even know that all this lovely blue-green world will be ripped to shreds when our sun expands as it must and fling all these bits back to the stars from whence they came. Oblivion so total mocks the vanity of the memoirist, our hopes that WE will go on forever. Which is why we do NOT think about it much. And maybe we SHOULD, because that material view is not the whole story…

Hard materialism is a just philosophical assumption like any other, an assumption that there is only matter, there is NOT more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in any of our philosophies. To the hard materialist, the brain is just a 1.3 kg bag of water, carbohydrates and fat, subtly organized through evolution to provide us with the useful illusions of thought and freedom and will. And yet the depth and complexity of our subjective experience of our ‘selves’—our mind’s presence--feels very real, and not an illusion, despite what the Buddhists say.  And then there are the reported after-death experiences—you know, the light at the end of the tunnel, and the loved ones greeting you. Are these clearly perceived experiences a reality or just self-medicating symptoms of a dying brain? It very much depends on the view you choose to take. Neuroscientist David Eagleman puts this well when he says that in the 21st century “we know way too much to commit to a particular religious story…they’re too small-thinking to possibly be correct….but at the other end of the spectrum…we know too LITTLE about what’s going on in the cosmos to commit to strict [materialism]. Uncertainty may be an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd position.” In an infinite universe, anything’s possible. Even angels and harps, I guess.

Which is to say that the man in the pulpit (me) who is expected to offer a religion’s consolation for our mortality has only this to offer: “Err…search me!” No, that’s not quite true. Though I do not believe in After Life, life after death, I do believe in Life Before death. And the first step in creating your own consoling attitude to your own death is to Appreciate your LIFE. Whatever that looks like to you---whatever gets you out of bed in the morning with a song in your heart. Do THAT and do it to death, just as long as it hurts no sentient being. You know what that is, too, and if you don’t, best you find it. Start today.

The awareness of our impermanence can easily encourage you to live more in each moment. Don’t waste the moment ruminating on the PAST—it’s gone and you can’t alter it. Don’t waste the moment fretting about the future—it’s uncertain and you can’t count on it. All you have is NOW. Learn to Love being alive right now, and you’ll minimize regret when your moments run out. And as its spring, you can take your cue from the Mayflies that are now emerging in the rising Australian spring. Proper Greek name “Ephemeroptera” meaning ‘winged things lasting only a day’. That’s us—winged things lasting only a day. One day—but how gaily the Mayflies live that day. And yes, here’s a snatch of poetry about them you may want to hang onto, from the poem “Mayfly” by Louis MacNeice.

Barometer of my moods today, mayfly,

Up and down one among a million,

One only day of May alive beneath the sun...

They never have the chance, but what of time they have
They stretch out taut and thin and ringing clear;
So we, whose strand of life is not much more,
Let us too make our time elastic and
Inconsequently dance above the dazzling wave.

Damn death. Long live life.

No comments:

Post a Comment