An Xmas Reflection On Christ, Afterlives And Why We Care

Four reasons we fear death and what to do about them

Posted Dec 22, 2014

‘Tis the season to be jolly of course, but its also winter, which can be a little depressing. The trees are barren; the skies are gray. 

Mostly we don’t mind the winter. We know that it springloads spring, a trigger cocked to shoot out all the shoots and blossoms to come. If winter reminds us of death, we know that there will be an afterlife, come springtime.

Winter is also when we celebrate the birth of the world’s most popular springboard, Jesus who rose from the dead to live again, a prophet whose popularity grew in early Christian history primarily as a path to eternal life.

Two billion or roughly a third of the world’s population believes in him. Most of the rest of us believe in some path to an afterlife, either reincarnation here on earth or some other realm. Apparently, most of us would like some encouraging sign that there’s something after aging’s winter discontent, our own end-of-life worry: What’s next?

At 58, a happy origins-of-life researcher, I’m confident that I will not be born again here or anywhere, but that doesn’t mean I’m at peace about this whole dying business.  

This week, I noticed that my fear of death is actually four fears. Here they are and my most realistic response to each of them.

  1. I’m afraid of the process of dying since it’s generally painful: Understandable, since we dread anything that’s going to hurt. Now, I don't spend my time worrying about the pain of a broken leg I might have some day, but then it's not inevitable like dying. Still, pain at the end isn't entirely inevitable either. I could get blown up or they could give me morphine. I can see why I’d dread the painful ending, but I’m guessing I’d dread death even if I had my own unlimited supply of morphine.
  2. I’m still disappointed that I won’t live forever. Living is lots of fun for me. It’s really disappointing that it has to end sometime. Now, I’ve known that I don’t get to live forever for a very long time, ever since, as a toddler I heard people talking about people in the past tense, people who once were, but are no more. And it’s not that I’m jealous of others who get to live forever, since none of us do. I’d think I’d have gotten over this one by now, but no. I’m still hoping for a way to just keep on going. I’m too rational to buy into some religious escape-route theory, but something in me keeps an eye out for the fountain of youth.
  3. Life tends strongly to end on a sour note. If it ends on a sour note for all of us, then that's just another inevitability I've known about for decades. Still, there's something about that sour note that makes us think it's where we spend eternity. Ghosts all look like they've got cancer. Most images of ghosts make them look like a freeze-frame on the gaunt sickly state we're in on our deathbeds. Still, I know that we don't just keep dying forever. When we're dead we no longer exist. I’m confident about this, though of course I could be wrong. And yet, as an origins of life researcher working on one of the more promising theories about what life really is, I have what for me is a credible explanation for what life is and therefore what death is, which brings me to my fourth fear.
  4. Fending off death has been my life-long gig: Living systems have a unique capacity to keep on keeping on. We do the particular things that keep rebuilding and repairing ourselves when we would otherwise fall apart. Particularly what we rebuild and repair is the constraints that limit what we do. That’s what goes when we die. The matter we’re made of at the time of death is still all there, but it’s un-constrained. It can do anything whereas in life its highly constrained. The origins of this capacity would take some explaining in chemical terms, but you know it intuitionally from your to-don’t list, the things that you are biologically and psychologically disinclined to do, constraints like don’t kiss poisonous snakes, stroll busy freeways, rub brackish water into a wound, or go without water for a week.

The particular things we do are those that sustain us through our lifetimes, not the things that don’t. We think of the to-do’s as hardwired into our genetic blueprint and programmed brains, but that’s not accurate. It’s more like the alternative behaviors--the ones that will get us killed are precluded or prevented to a large extent. Unlike all other systems, living systems do work to maintain the constraints that limit work to that work which maintain those constraints. I know that sounds circular. That’s because it is, we’re perpetual-living machines, machines that do what it takes to continue limiting our behavior down to what it takes. We strive to keep going. What dies when we die is the striving to keep going.

I’ve spent my life avoiding death, which means that the end of life I’m bound to skid a bit as I brake my life-long momentum to keep on keeping on. Since I’ve always been about preserving my life, I’m not prepared to simply end that campaign.

That’s OK. I’ll be ready when the time comes. Or not.

Ready or not, my campaign will end, and lacking an afterlife there won’t be an “I” left to be OK or not OK with it.

Afterword on the afterlife: I do believe in something of an afterlife, though one that’s disappointing to the traditional assumptions about it. I’ll be gone, but the constraints that limited what I did and what I thought will live on in a few forms. My DNA got passed to my kids whose to-don’ts have some hereditary qualities. I have a son with my nose for example: Of all the noses he could have, his happens to be limited or constrained down to my kind of nose. 

And there will be traces of the constraints I’ve imposed on possible thought and behavior that live on faintly in anyone who resonated and resonate with them as long as the words stick around.

Words on pages are constraints too. They’re not a blueprint for what to think, but while you’re reading them you’re thoughts get narrowed in on or constrained down to some thoughts and not others.

Here’s a limerick I live by, that I wrote when mulling over some dead philosopher’s particular words about afterlives.

Reincarnation is real

Just how will reduce its appeal

It’s your seeds and your deeds

Not your soul, it recedes

Hopping off after once round the wheel.

Photo labeled for reuse.