Sunday, April 5, 2009

On matters of life and death

This is a repost of something I wrote on IGI, the forum I'm spending a lot of my "conversations on the web" time on. It's a little long, but it encapsulates my philosophy on life fairly well, so I thought it was worth reposting. It's a response to a guy in his 20's who is facing for the first time the idea that yes, he really is going to die some day, and struggling with the idea that when that happens, he will no longer exist, and everything his life was will fade to nothing. When he was a kid, he was religious, and so death was a non-issue because he believed in the afterlife, but having lost that belief, he now wanted the advice of the forum, and specifically sent me a message asking for mine. This is what I said:


And long after i am forgotten it will be as if i never walked the earth.

Now, this is just my opinion, but I think that's wrong.

As long as the universe itself exists, what you did with your life will still be around. Now, you won't be remembered, there will be nothing that says "Trevor was here". But the consequences of your actions will still be there. Part of the background noise that shapes all future generations.

I think about my parents, and I wonder... what made them the way they are? And it was the people they lived around, the conditions of their lives. And what made those people the way they are? And it's the people that they lived around. And you can go back, generation after generation, and when you think about it, what each and every one of those people did, matters to the world I live in today. But of course, what other forms of life did matters too. And the happenstances of weather, and gravity and all kinds of forces beyond our control... all of these things made the world the way it is. In fact, the sum total of all human endeavors pales in comparison to the huge effect of time and the universe acting on itself, when it comes to the making of the world we live in today. And I am one of 6 billion living people today, and multi-multi trillion living organisms, on an infinitesimal part of the universe. So the amount of effect I can have even within my own life, on the people directly around me, is very, very, very, very, very small. But here's the kicker: It's not 0. And even though the recognition that I'll get for my contribution, whatever it may be, will be small, and will fade to 0, the consequences of my actions won't fade to 0. In fact, they might very well grow over time, not shrink. People I treat well, and help out, will help others, or hurt others less, and those people in turn will do the same, and over time the effects of my actions, good or bad, will multiply. So although there's a lot in life we can't control, or even fully understand, and who we were and that we lived may fade from memory, I think it is a deep mistake to think that after we die, it will eventually be as if we never lived. I think the consequences of our actions are as eternal as anything is.

Also, I think you should focus on what you can control. Because the brutal fact is, you have one shot. No do-overs. You screw up and miss out on something you could have had or done, maybe you'll learn from it, and a few years later you'll get in another similar situation, and do better. And that's all well and good, but that shot you had originally is gone, and you can't get it back. So decide what you want from life, and go after it. Death will come, inevitably, but... your one shot at life comes first.

This absolutely terrifies me. I dont want to die. but i am totally powerless to do anything about this.

That's right, you are (almost) completely powerless to do anything about... well, really most of the things that happen to you in life. The weather. The number of hours in a day, and how many of them have to be spent doing housework or other tasks that are going to have to be done again next week, and the week after that. The people you meet, and in large part whether or not they like you. The opportunities that come your way. Whether you're going to cross the street tomorrow and get hit by a bus. But of course, you do have some control. You can look both ways, and eat healthy, and be nice and smile. So it's a mistake to think that because there's so much you can't do anything about, you're powerless. The truth is, like with how much of a difference you can make in the world, your power to control things in your own life is very, very, very limited, but non-zero. And, you have a choice how you can spend your limited ability to control your life. You can spend your time being terrified of things over which you have absolutely no control whatsoever, or you can focus on the things you can do something about. Pour your energy into understanding what motivates you, what you're good at, what you want from life, and how you can have a good one. Treat the things you can't do anything about as fixed barriers you have to understand and work around, rather than throwing yourself against them. And find a way that when you look back on your life, you're happy about how you lived it. Again, death will come, but it's a (fairly) fixed barrier. Don't run from thinking about it, just remember - you have one shot, focus on making it count. Think about death only inasmuch as it helps you to be more effective at using the life-time that you have well. For me, that's pretty much daily, but it's not to be scared of it, it's just to say: don't forget - you get no second chances. And to continually evaluate whether I'm doing what I can to make my life count.

How do you do that?

Well, it's different for every person. Find the things you're good at, and understand the things that are important to you, is the first thing, I think. And then, continually take time to think about how your life is going, how you want it to go, what you can control and what you can't...

The list of things you could think about, and how carefully you could potentially think things through, means you could spend all of your time thinking, and none of it doing, though. Which is why, the key is balance. All of the possibilities of things you could do with your life, and all of the information that would allow you to make the best possible decisions, won't fit in your head. Time is limited, your perception of the world and your understanding of things is limited, so... you're never going to be able to make A+ perfect decisions, and have an absolutely ideal life, no matter how many times you think "only one shot". Your limitations are just another thing you're stuck with, though, and can't control. So, do your best, and accept that it's never going to be as good as it could have been if only you could have known what you learned this year five years ago.

Take all of this and synthesize it, and what kind of life do you get? Well, what happens is, you have peace because you've stopped worrying about things you can't do anything about. You have purpose because you've focused on figuring out what you want, at least enough to start acting on it. You have peer recognition because your'e doing things that use whatever strengths and talents you have, which means generally you're going to be better at whatever it is that you're spending your time at than the average person who is attempting that activity. And you wish there were 36 hours in a day, or you didn't have to spend 8 hours of the day sleeping (what a waste!). There's too much to do in life, too much to think about to figure out how to do the best job you can of controlling the few things you can control, for you to worry about death, or really anything else other than "am I doing my best?".

I live my life the best way I can, and if I die and find out there was a God and he's disappointed in me... well, OK. If someone says to me many years from now "hey, you've wasted a bunch of time, you should have been doing X with your life"... well, OK. Can't be helped. I'm an incredibly stupid, limited sort of creature, and there's only so much I can manage, so if I get it wrong, I get it wrong. I just spend my time trying the best I can to get it right. That absorbs all of my time, and all of my energy, and although I wish I was better, overall I'm pretty happy with the results. It's an approach I'd recommend to anyone. Another thing I'd recommend: Learn from people who are smarter than you, those who have spent their lives doing different things than you (because they're going to be smarter than you in the things they know about, and you're going to be smarter than them in the things you know about, so it works well for both of you) or have spent more time thinking about whatever it is you're thinking about. It's quite possible that something that would take you a year to figure out on your own could be learned from someone else in an hour.

Sorry this is so long, and I'm sure it doesn't give you all the answers you might be looking for. But the thing is, nobody has all of the answers. Luckily, everyone has some of them. Good luck (-:


paladin said...

It might take a silly and dogmatic theist to mention this, but: have you pondered *why* this "terror of being obliterated" is so strong in his heart, and--if we're honest--in the heart of every human person?

Methinks, when you (sincerely and kindly enough) offer alternate ways of saying, "no, you'll have made a difference, no matter how small", you're begging two questions:

1) Could this "existential terror" not be in his heart because oblivion is contrary to our nature? (Honestly: who screams in soul-searching terror when we get our nails clipped, or when we use the restroom? Things which are in keeping with our nature don't usually bring forth this sort of terror-ridden despair...)

2) Is it not possible to entertain everything you've said, re: "impact in the world", and still have immortality of the soul, as well?

Myron said...

Hey Paladin. It's been a while, but I think I'm going to try to get back into blogging, in a very limited way, and you ask good questions, so let's see if I can answer.

1. Why are we afraid of death?

My answer: Because those who weren't really afraid of death were more likely to die before reproducing. The more you care about preserving your own life, the more likely it is you will do so. Preserving your fingernails or your hair, which will grow back naturally, is a different matter. However, many people are very distraught if they lose all of their hair, or someone were to rip out their fingernails so that they'd never grow back, and they'd look like a bit of a freak and have the potential of social exclusion as a result. Human beings don't do well with social exclusion.

2. Sure, it's possible that when you die you don't really die because you have an immortal soul. I see no evidence that this is the case, though. What I do see is that everyone has a strong reason to believe that they have an immortal soul, regardless of whether this is true or not, because fear is unpleasant. This is similar to how people find all kinds of reasons to justify unethical behaviour after they've done something wrong, because guilt is unpleasant. Just because people want to believe something, about themselves to escape negative emotions doesn't make it true, and those things that people really want to believe should be viewed with particular skepticism. A belief which allows you to escape from "terror-ridden despair" should be examined very carefully, and really strong evidence provided before you conclude that you've found the truth.

Myron said...

Also, I was afraid of dying at first, but then I understood that even though I will die, what I do won't. History will go on, and my part in it will still be there, for as long as anything exists. I don't much like the "if we're honest" part, because it implies that anyone who doesn't scream in soul-searching terror at the thought of death is in denial, which I don't think is always the case. Sometimes, maybe, but often not.