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Coming to Terms With Our Mortality


From time to time, I get a question from a reader that provides me with a large, open-ended topic to think about. Here is one of those questions along with my response.

Hello Harley-

The plain fact of just dying, and then being nothing is completely mind blowing to me. The thought of not knowing what is out there in the Universe, or able to find out the mysteries of even the earths past seems cruel to me.

I remember as a child thinking of all these questions, what happens when you die? If God does exist who created God? And the infamous: Why are we here?

And what made me feel much better was the simple answer: I will find out when I die.

Well, with the thought of no after-life, no soul, and no spiritual being engraved in my brain; it is has brought down my good expectations of death by 100%, but it has made me appreciate life a whole lot more. So just live life to itís fullest, enjoy it while you are here. NOW I KNOW and understand when people would say that life is the greatest gift of them all.

But since you are a smart man with a lot of logic I ask, do you believe in an after life?

— Joel

Dear Joel:

Thanks for asking such thoughtful and important questions. Here are some ideas for you.

> The plain fact of just dying, and then being nothing is completely
> mind blowing to me. The thought of not knowing what is out there
> in the Universe, or able to find out the mysteries of even the
> earths past seems cruel to me.

In a way it is cruel. Dogs and cats, for example, who don't think, also don't suffer worrying about the future or about death. A dog or cat might live, say, only 15 years, and yet they are much happier than we are and they don't obsess about death. How would you feel if you knew from the time you were young that you would probably live only 15 years?

It's knowing that is cruel, not death itself.

> I remember as a child thinking of all these questions. What
> happens when you die? If God does exist, who created God?,
> And the infamous: Why are we here?

> And what made me feel much better was the simple answer,
> I will find out when I die.

Yes, that myth is comforting, which is why we tell it to children.

> Well, with the thought of no after-life, no soul, and no spiritual
> being engraved in my brain; it is has brought down my good
> expectations of death by 100%, but it has made me appreciate life
> a whole lot more.

I think you are starting to get it.

> So just live life to itís fullest, enjoy it while you are here.
> NOW I KNOW and understand when people would say that life is the
> greatest gift of them all. But since you are a smart man with a
> lot of logic I ask, do you believe in an after life?

No, of course not. And before you say, it would be nice though if it would be true, think it through as clearly as you can. If people lived forever, we would, eventually, be searching for ways to kill ourselves. Although we are aware of death and mortality, and often scared of it, we were not designed to live much longer than 90-100 years (if that) and still be reasonably happy.

The biggest question in life, one that we must come to terms with over a very long time, is: How should we think about death?

The answer is: You figure it out for yourself, bit by bit, over the course of a lifetime.

Here's an idea to help you. Let's say you were a 10-year-old dog who could think. You wouldn't be happy, in fact you would be going crazy knowing that you would be dead in a few years, probably not more than five. How could you live and not worry about death? That only makes sense.

Or does it? Think about all the very old people you know. Let's say you meet an old man or woman in his or her 90s. Chance are, the old person won't live more than another five years, just like the dog in our example. Even people in their 70s and 80s know they probably won't live all that long. Many people don't even make it anywhere near 90. And yet, all these people are not chronically depressed, worried about death. Many of them have rich, satisfying lives. How can that be? They are human beings who can think and, as such, they are well aware of their own mortality and that they have only a few more years to live.

The answer is that, as we grow older, we slowly come to terms with death. The process starts when we are young when, like you, we lie in bed in the dark, wondering about nothingness and being scared, looking for easy answers and comfort. The process continues, bit by bit, as we age.

What you are doing is normal and healthy. Keep thinking, keep reading, keep talking to other people. You are working on the central problem of your life. There is comfort and acceptance eventually, much more than simply resigning yourself to an awful fate. You'll see.

When you get discouraged and you need inspiration, just look at the old people.