“The Death of Everything” by Brock Haussamen

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.

Abyss (hdwallsource.com)

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.

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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.

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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.

The Author

Brock Haussamen

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.

See Brock Haussamen’s Posts

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4 Comments on ““The Death of Everything” by Brock Haussamen

  1. It’s funny, I have the exact opposite fear although I expect they are closely related. My fear is not seeing the end of the story. If I thought the world ended with me, at least I wouldn’t be missing anything. I picture my children’s lives going on, all those people I know going on and I won’t know. I guess it’s the difference between a favorite TV show getting cancelled after one season or it goes on for ten years and spins off into other shows and movies and books, but they aren’t available to you-they exist, but tantalizingly out of reach.

    • I have a version of that anxiety too, although not so strongly. It is, as you say, a sense that I am going to miss out on things, that I will miss my family and friends. I guess that one way or the other we project a lot of ourselves on to what happens after we die.

  2. I’ve had similar terrifying glimpses and I understand it as the death of consciousness. If there’s one thing to which I am VERY attached in life, it’s my consciousness. I find some comfort in the fact that although “I” -this person, this consciousness- will disintegrate and be no more, the physical elements of its composition will continue indefinitely. Neither matter nor energy is lost but only the form changes, science tells me and I believe.
    Another comfort is imagining the hellish alternative: that this consciousness, this personality, should continue to go on ad infinitum, without release or relief; for I do see that in order for anything to be meaningful to us we must be able to distinguish it from the rest of the soup- we must be able to see it discretely, which means it needs a beginning, middle, and an end.
    Death is truly the end of me, and for that I’m glad, for me without end would be the worst blow of all.

    • Unlike you, I don’t find any consolation in knowing that my atoms will be floating around elsewhere. They come and go in a human body in huge numbers on a daily basis anyway. Your “hellish alternative” is interesting–sounds like medieval Christianity–and that’s a great point about things, including us, needing a beginning, middle, and end if they are to have meaning.

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