Editor’s note: This essay was originally published at Brock Haussamen’s blog 3.8 Billion Years.
I wrote last year about my five fears of dying. They included four familiar ones—fear of pain and fears of letting go of my life and my ego—along with one that is hazier and less familiar. This is the fear, as I wrote then, that when I die “the rest of the universe will end also. It’s a quirk of the brain, I think—a spinoff of trying to imagine nothingness.” This fear is not severe or continuous—it comes in flashes—but it is recurring. I don’t know if others have this experience. I haven’t read or heard that they do. I grant that this fear may have some roots in my particular psyche, but I also suspect that others have probably felt irrationally that their death will in some way threaten things or people beyond themselves.
Like many people, I sometimes think about what it would be like to die. Like them also—or most of them—I don’t dwell on it for very long or in much detail. At other times, though, out of nowhere the prospect of my death stands starkly before me (I’m 70), my gut tightens and there is an instant of blur, a panic, and a blankness until I catch something else to think about. The suddenness is like the flash of a frightening memory from childhood, or imagining being in a car crash. When this sense of impending extinction comes at me, my surroundings seem to take part in the disintegration as well. It is a little like being in a completely dark room and losing your sense of where the furniture is, of which wall is where, and then losing for a moment even your sense of being in a room.
Sometimes the surroundings that seem to dissolve are everything, the entire universe, in all directions. Sometimes, though, what seems to disappear is just me—that is, my past and the fact that I ever existed. As if there never was a Brock Haussamen. In either case, whether it’s my self or the universe that disappears, the feeling is of a hole, an absence larger than just my present self that comes into being at the same time as my dying. Grim but brief.
As far as I can figure this illusion out, the basis for it is simply that my knowledge of both myself and the universe is all packed inside my head, so when the inevitability of death comes at me, my disappearance seems to include the disappearance of the things I know about. It reminds me of children who believe that when they close their eyes, they become invisible. Their loss of vision prompts them to believe that others have lost their perception of them and so their own body has in effect disappeared. In my case, imagining myself dead means imagining I can no longer perceive anything which in turn prompts the eerie sense that everything has disappeared. We usually carry around reasonable boundaries between us and everything else and we trust that the world persists without our keeping an eye on it all 24 hours a day. But when we imagine ourselves gone, that boundary is gone as well and anything else can be sucked into the black hole.
I can see how traditional religions relieve such anxieties of Hades or the pit or the abyss by promoting ancestors, deities, and an afterlife that transcend the natural world. Into the nineteenth century, most people knew they would die in their beds, with family around them, all of them sharing the long-practiced expectation that they would meet again soon. That consensus is gone now. We die more often in a medical context, whether at home or in a hospital, than in a religious one. Death often smacks of failures—the doctors’ failures to stop a disease, our own failures to have stayed healthier. I wonder if such bleak undercurrents play a part in my flashes of doom.
On the brighter side, I have reminders to myself for easing my panicky moments. Sometimes I consider people I know who have passed away and I reassure myself how steadily, inspite of sadness, their friends and family carry on. During the last few days, as I’ve have been working on this blog, two elderly friends have died. Despite the emotions of friends and family, it is a rock-solid sure thing that the lives of the rest of us are continuing, for now. This obvious continuity, this fool’s wisdom, reassures me more than it used to. I breathe easier. A death, no matter how great the loss, does no damage to existence itself. Nor to the chain of life. Every year we are surrounded by the deaths of plants and animals of every description and beyond counting, death on such a scale there might well be reason to fear an apocalypse. Yet none occurs. The world is as full of animation as it is of disintegration, life and death turning together as they reach through time.
Brock Haussamen: I grew up in New York City and now live in New Jersey, where I taught English for four decades at a community college, a profession I found varied and rewarding. I’m married, with family in the area.
I retired in 2006 in part to fight poverty as best I could, at every level I could–locally, nationally, and in Africa. I’ve become a local volunteer and on-line advocate and along the way have learned fast about the economic, political, and legal issues that accompany poverty.
I also found myself thinking more about the central questions that catch up with us sooner or later: What is my purpose? How will I face death? What do I believe in? I have always liked the descriptions from science about how living things work, about the history of the earth, about the nature of the cosmos. But I could not put those pictures together with my questions. Gradually I came to see that life’s history over 3.8 billion years stood inside and throughout my being and constituted my livingness at its core. In my blog at threepointeightbillionyears.com, I’ve been exploring the variety of ways in which our experience is anchored not just in our evolution from primates but in the much longer lifespan of life itself.