At some point in our life, we come to accept the fact we are closer to death than life. What lies ahead is definitely less significant than what is left behind. These are the twilight years, and I have come to accept them. With darkness descending over the horizons, and the long shadows of misspent years and evaded human conditions slithering all around me, I peer into the void, into an eternity of silence and dreamlessness. It is almost time.
Some recent events have prompted me to revisit this uncomfortable topic — why do we grieve when someone dies?
Most religions tell us that the departed, if they were good in life, end up in a better place. So grieving doesn’t make sense. If the departed were bad, we wouldn’t grieve any way.
Even if you are not religious, and do not believe in an eternal soul, death cannot be a bad thing for the dead, for they feel nothing, because they do not exist, which is the definition of death.
I was as shocked as everybody else when I heard the news of Robin Williams’s apparent suicide. I wanted to write something about it because I am ardent fan of his work. In fact, I’m a fan of all those talented people who can make others laugh, starting from Ted Danson of Cheers to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, and all the f.r.i.e.n.d.s in between.
It also gets me thinking. Most of us want to be rich and famous. But money and fame don’t seem to be enough to keep anybody happy. Why is that? As usual, I have a theory about it. In fact, I have two. I will share both with you, but keep in mind that these are merely the theories of an unreal blogger, nothing more. The theories notwithstanding, right now, I just feel profoundly sad, almost as though Robin Williams was somebody I knew and cared about. It is silly, of course, but something about his age (and how uncomfortably close it is to mine), the suddenness of his death, and the fact that he made us laugh out loud, makes his parting something of a personal loss.
What has been of intense personal satisfaction for me was my “discovery” related to GRBs and radio sources alluded to earlier. Strangely, it is also the origin of most of things that I’m not proud of. You see, when you feel that you have found the purpose of your life, it is great. When you feel that you have achieved the purpose, it is greater still. But then comes the question — now what? Life in some sense ends with the perceived attainment of the professed goals. A life without goals is a clearly a life without much motivation. It is a journey past its destination. As many before me have discovered, it is the journey toward an unknown destination that drives us. The journey’s end, the arrival, is troublesome, because it is death. With the honest conviction of this attainment of the goals then comes the disturbing feeling that life is over. Now there are only rituals left to perform. As a deep-seated, ingrained notion, this conviction of mine has led to personality traits that I regret. It has led to a level of detachment in everyday situations where detachment was perhaps not warranted, and a certain recklessness in choices where a more mature consideration was perhaps indicated.
The recklessness led to many strange career choices. In fact, I feel as though I lived many different lives in my time. In most roles I attempted, I managed to move near the top of the field. As an undergrad, I got into the most prestigious university in India. As a scientist later on, I worked with the best at that Mecca of physics, CERN. As a writer, I had the rare privilege of invited book commissions and regular column requests. During my short foray into quantitative finance, I am quite happy with my sojourn in banking, despite my ethical misgivings about it. Even as a blogger and a hobby programmer, I had quite a bit success. Now, as the hour to bow out draws near, I feel as though I have been an actor who had the good fortune of landing several successful roles. As though the successes belonged to the characters, and my own contribution was a modicum of acting talent. I guess that detachment comes of trying too many things. Or is it just the grumbling restlessness in my soul?
What I would like to believe my goal in life to be is the pursuit of knowledge, which is, no doubt, a noble goal to have. It may be only my vanity, but I honestly believe that it was really my goal and purpose. But by itself, the pursuit of knowledge is a useless goal. One could render it useful, for instance, by applying it — to make money, in the final analysis. Or by spreading it, teaching it, which is also a noble calling. But to what end? So that others may apply it, spread it and teach it? In that simple infinite regression lies the futility of all noble pursuits in life.
Futile as it may be, what is infinitely more noble, in my opinion, is to add to the body of our collective knowledge. On that count, I am satisfied with my life’s work. I figured out how certain astrophysical phenomena (like gamma ray bursts and radio jets) work. And I honestly believe that it is new knowledge, and there was an instant a few years ago when I felt if I died then, I would die a happy man for I had achieved my purpose. Liberating as this feeling was, now I wonder — is it enough to add a small bit of knowledge to the stuff we know with a little post-it note saying, “Take it or leave it”? Should I also ensure that whatever I think I found gets accepted and officially “added”? This is indeed a hard question. To want to be officially accepted is also a call for validation and glory. We don’t want any of that, do we? Then again, if the knowledge just dies with me, what is the point? Hard question indeed.
Speaking of goals in life reminds me of this story of a wise man and his brooding friend. The wise man asks, “Why are you so glum? What is it that you want?”
The friend says, “I wish I had a million bucks. That’s what I want.”
“Okay, why do you want a million bucks?”
“Well, then I could buy a nice house.”
“So it is a nice house that you want, not a million bucks. Why do you want that?”
“Then I could invite my friends, and have a nice time with them and family.”
“So you want to have a nice time with your friends and family. Not really a nice house. Why is that?”
Such why questions will soon yield happiness as the final answer, and the ultimate goal, a point at which no wise man can ask, “Why do you want to be happy?”
I do ask that question, at times, but I have to say that the pursuit of happiness (or happyness) does sound like a good candidate for the ultimate goal in life.
Toward the end of his life, Somerset Maugham summed up his “take-aways” in a book aptly titled “The Summing Up.” I also feel an urge to sum up, to take stock of what I have achieved and attempted to achieve. This urge is, of course, a bit silly in my case. For one thing, I clearly achieved nothing compared to Maugham; even considering that he was a lot older when he summed up his stuff and had more time achieve things. Secondly, Maugham could express his take on life, universe and everything much better than I will ever be able to. These drawbacks notwithstanding, I will take a stab at it myself because I have begun to feel the nearness of an arrival — kind of like what you feel in the last hours of a long haul flight. I feel as though whatever I have set out to do, whether I have achieved it or not, is already behind me. Now is probably as good a time as any to ask myself — what is it that I set out to do?
I think my main goal in life was to know things. In the beginning, it was physical things like radios and television. I still remember the thrill of finding the first six volumes of “Basic Radio” in my dad’s book collection, although I had no chance of understanding what they said at that point in time. It was a thrill that took me through my undergrad years. Later on, my focus moved on to more fundamental things like matter, atoms, light, particles, physics etc. Then on to mind and brain, space and time, perception and reality, life and death — issues that are most profound and most important, but paradoxically, least significant. At this point in my life, where I’m taking stock of what I have done, I have to ask myself, was it worth it? Did I do well, or did I do poorly?
Looking back at my life so far now, I have many things to be happy about, and may others that I’m not so proud of. Good news first — I have come a long a way from where I started off. I grew up in a middle-class family in the seventies in India. Indian middle class in the seventies would be poor by any sensible world standards. And poverty was all around me, with classmates dropping out of school to engage in menial child labor like carrying mud and cousins who could not afford one square meal a day. Poverty was not a hypothetical condition afflicting unknown souls in distant lands, but it was a painful and palpable reality all around me, a reality I escaped by blind luck. From there, I managed to claw my way to an upper-middle-class existence in Singapore, which is rich by most global standards. This journey, most of which can be attributed to blind luck in terms of genetic accidents (such as academic intelligence) or other lucky breaks, is an interesting one in its own right. I think I should be able to put a humorous spin on it and blog it up some day. Although it is silly to take credit for accidental glories of this kind, I would be less than honest if I said I wasn’t proud of it.
I have reached the age where I have seen a few deaths. And I have had time to think about it a bit. I feel the most important thing is to die with dignity. The advances in modern medicine, though effective in keeping us alive longer, may rob us of the dignity with which we would like to go. The focus is on keeping the patient alive. But the fact of the matter is that everybody will die. So medicine will lose the battle, and it is a sore loser. That’s why the statements like “Cancer is the biggest killer” etc. are, to some extent, meaningless. When we figure out how to prevent deaths from common colds and other infections, heart disease begins to claim a relatively larger share of deaths. When we beat the heart disease, cancer becomes the biggest killer, not so much because it is now more prevalent or virulent, but in the zero-sum game of life and death, it had to.
The focus on the quantity of life diminishes its quality near its tail end due to a host of social and ethical considerations. Doctors are bound by their professional covenants to offer us the best care we ask for (provided, of course, that we can afford it). The “best care” usually means the one that will keep us alive the longest. The tricky part is that it has become an entrenched part of the system, and the default choice that will be made for us — at times even despite our express wishes to the contrary.
Consider the situation when an aged and fond relative of ours falls terminally sick. The relative is no longer in control of the medical choices; we make the choices for them. Our well-meaning intentions make us choose exactly the “best care” regardless of whether the patient has made different end-of-life choices.
The situation is further complicated by other factors. The terminal nature of the sickness may not be apparent at the outset. How are we supposed to decide whether the end-of-life choices apply when even the doctors may not know? Besides, in those dark hours, we are understandably upset and stressed, and our decisions are not always rational and well-considered. Lastly, the validity of the end-of-life choices may be called into question. How sure are we that our dying relative hasn’t changed their mind? It is impossible for any of us to put ourselves in their shoes. Consider my case. I may have made it abundantly clear now that I do not want any aggressive prolongation of my life, but when I make that decision, I am healthy. Toward the end, lying comatose in a hospital bed, I may be screaming in my mind, “Please, please, don’t pull the plug!” How do we really know that we should be bound by the decisions we took under drastically different circumstances?
I have no easy answers here. However, we do have some answers from the experts — the doctors. How do they choose to die? May be we can learn something from them. I for one would like to go the way the doctors choose to go.
We all have some genetic logic hard-coded in our DNA regarding death and how to face it — and, much more importantly, how to avoid it. One aspect of this genetic logic perplexes me. It is the meekness with which we seem to face the prospect of death, especially violent death. In violent situations, we seem bent on appealing to the assailant’s better nature to let us be. With apologies to those who may find this reference offensive, I’m thinking of the millions of people who marched quietly into the night during the holocaust, for instance. Given that the end result (death) was more or less guaranteed whether they resisted or not, why didn’t they? Why is there such a motto as “resist no evil”? Why the heck not?
Well, I know some of the answers, but let’s stack some cold and possibly inappropriate logic against these vagaries of our genetic logic. If a Bengal tiger attacks you in a forest, your best chance of survival would be to stand up and fight, I would think. It is possible, though not likely, that the tiger might consider you too much trouble and give up on you. I know the tigerologists out there would laugh at me, but I did say “not likely.” Besides, I have read this story of an Indian peasant who managed to save his friend from a tiger by scaring it off with a stick and a lot of noise. My be the peasant was just lucky that the tiger wasn’t too hungry, nonetheless… Anyhoo, I would have thought the genetic logic in our DNA would reflect this kind of fighting spirit which may improve our survival rate. Appealing to the tiger’s better nature would be somewhat less effective, in my opinion.
A similar meekness is apparent, I reckon, in our follow-the-crowd attitude toward many things in life, including our notion of morality, happiness etc. I suspect these notions are perhaps so complex and taxing to fathom that we let our intellectual laziness overtake our desire to know. My own thinking seems to lead to a dark symphony of aimlessness and lack of ethical values. I am desperately trying to find a happy note in it to wind up this series with.
The “trouble” is that most people are moral, ethical and all-round decent folks, despite the existence of death and their knowledge thereof. It is silly to dismiss it as meekness, lack of intellectual effort etc. There must be some other reason. I don’t think I will be able to find this elusive reason before the end of this series. But I have to conclude that “living everyday as your last” definitely doesn’t help. If anything, it has to be our blissful capacity to ignore death that brings about ethical rectitude. Perhaps the other motto of “living in the present moment” is just that — an appeal to ignore the future where death looms.
Death has the effect of rendering our daily existence absurd, as Sisyphus’s work on rocks. It really does make the notion of existence so absurd as to force one to justify why one should live at all. This dangerous line of thinking is something that every philosopher will have to face up to, at some point. Unless he has some answers, it would be wise to keep his thoughts to himself. I didn’t. But then, very few have accused me of the vice of wisdom.
Notwithstanding the certain rupture in the continuity of consciousness due to death, or a less certain rupture in that of a soul, we have another uninterrupted flow — that of life and of the world. This flow is the end result of a series of projections and perhaps the work of our mirror neurons. Let me explain. We know that the world doesn’t stop just because someone dies. Most of us middle-aged folks have lost a loved one, and, for all the grief, we know that life went on. So we can easily see that when we die, despite all the grief we may succeed in making our loved ones feel through our sheer good deeds, life will go on. Won’t it?
It is our absolute certainty about this continuity that prompts us to buy huge life insurances, and somewhat modulates the risk-reward analysis of our moral actions. I am not going to deny the existence of this continuity, tempted though I am to do just that. I merely want to point out certain facts that may prevent us from accepting it at its face value. The evidence for the world going on after our death is simple, too simple perhaps: We have seen people die; but we live on. Ergo, when we die, other people will live on. But you see, there is a profound difference between somebody else’s death and your death. We are thinking of death as the end of our consciousness or mind. Although I loosely group your mind and my mind as “our” mind in the previous sentence, they are completely different entities. In fact, a more asymmetric system is hard to imagine. The only mind I know of, and will ever know of, is my own. Your mind has an existence only in mine. So the demise of my mind is literally the end of your mind (and indeed all minds) as well. The world does come to an end with my death, quite logically.
This argument, though logical, is a bit formal and unconvincing. It smacks of solipsism. Let’s approach the issue from a different angle. As we did earlier in this essay, let’s think of death as dreamless slumber. If you are in such a state, does the world exist for you? I know the usual responses to this question: Of course it exists; just because you cannot feel it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. You know it exists, and that is enough. Now, who is this you that knows?
Therein lies the real rub. Once you cease to have a consciousness, be it thanks to sleep or death, you lose the ability to experience everything, including the existence of anything (or lack thereof). Now, we can take the normal approach and just assert that things have an existence independent of your experiencing it; that would the natural, dualistic view — you and everything else, your experiences and their physical causes, cause and effect, action and reaction, and so on. Once you begin to doubt the dualistic worldview and suspect that your experiences are within your consciousness, and that the so-called physical causes are also your cognitive constructs, you are on a slippery slope toward another worldview, one that seriously doubts if it makes any sense to assert that the world goes on after your death.
The world is merely a dream. What sense could a dead man’s dream possibly make?
One simple way of reinstating an absolute form of morality (as opposed to a relative, risk-reward kind) is to postulate continuity beyond death. The notion of a “soul,” as proposed in almost all religions, serves this purpose. Soul is also the substantive (albeit ethereal) representation of the otherwise elusive consciousness of ours, which is an entity that has no right to exist or be real because it fails all possible tests for real existence, yet is supremely real to each one of us. In fact, consciousness is more than real, it is the arena in which our reality plays out its act. It is so fundamental to our experience and existence that we have a hard time accepting its ephemerality.
I, for one, believe logically that when I die, everything I will have known and experienced till then will just disappear. I believe that death is like an eternal dreamless sleep. Logically. But logic has very little to do with what I can feel and accept, emotionally. I don’t like to drag in the concept of “emotion” here; I am thinking of what I can accept at a gut-level. “Primally” would perhaps be a better word to use, but I am not sure. Any way, once we have conscious awareness, and develop a sense of temporal continuity about things and experiences around us, we cannot help assigning continuity to the backdrop of it all — our consciousness. Continuity of selfhood is encoded into our mind. Primally — yes, that would be the right word.
Logic and rationality, which come after the primal plumbing of the mind, consciousness, selfhood etc. (which may all ultimately mean the same thing) is already in place, can influence our thinking only to a limited extent. Mind grasps at anything that offers a semblance of eternal continuity. Enter religions.
All conventional religions have some notion of a “soul,” which comes in different forms and with a multitude of meanings and contexts, although, logically, it can only mean our consciousness, or an entity holding our consciousness and pretty much nothing else. Thanks to our primal need to search and find continuity, we readily buy into whatever notion of soul our parents’ religion happens to uphold, ignoring the gaping holes in logic associated with it. From the perspective of religions (speaking of religions as organizational entities with intentions and purposes), the notion of continuity implied in the concept of a soul has a great benefit — it completely alters the risk-reward analysis at the root of morality. And it takes out death (or at least, greatly diminishes its significance) in the analysis. For death is only the beginning, as the horror-comedy taught us.
If the wages of sin are eternal third-degree burns, not some material comfort followed by thirty-to-life in a federal facility till death sets you free, you do think twice before doing the crime. The “time” that you may have to do could well be an eternity. Other religions offer other kinds of divine carrots and sticks. For instance, if you are a Hindu engaged in a particularly unsavory Karma, you will reincarnate as somebody (or something) on the receiving end of the stick, roughly neutralizing your risk-reward equation. On the other hand, if you are willing to take it on your chin with some amount of fortitude, you will be upgraded to business class in your next life.
In all notions of spiritual continuity of consciousness, and/or soul, there is something I find logically wanting. It is the lack of continuity of memory. Death is still a point of phase transition where all the existing memory is erased. If we think of soul as the eternal manifestation of mind and consciousness, erasing its memory is as good or as bad as killing it, is it not?
What I find interesting in this Hindu notion is that the ultimate reward for presumably the best possible Karma is not an eternal life of comfort in heaven, but a release from the cycle of reincarnations, which, in my view, is similar to an eternal dreamless sleep — which is the only logical notion of death we can scientifically entertain. So, in the Hindu notion of the reward for ultimate good is, in some sense, the ultimate death. Makes me wonder…