Saturday, December 11, 2010

Death in the morning

I suppose it’s pretty universal for people to feel that the death of the young is especially tragic. The sense of lost potential. Cut down before they even had a chance to get the most out of life. Cheated by the Grim Reaper. They died before their time–as the saying goes. Hopes and dreams go up in smoke.  

ER physicians feel the same way. Frankly, they’ll make more effort to save the life of teenager than a 90-year-old grandmother. The teenager has so many years ahead of him. So much to live for. Look forward to.  

(I say this because there are TV shows about ER physicians who admit that sentiment.)  

Walking through a cemetery, you notice the dates. There’s something especially sad about the grave of a child. You do the mental arithmetic and realize that this person hardly got started. There you are, alive, looking down on his untimely grave.  

There’s a certain logic to this attitude. Don’t we all feel that way? Yet from an atheistic standpoint, it makes no difference when you die.  

We may feel it’s “natural” from someone to die of old age. He’s completed the arc. Had the opportunity to explore life. Experience the highs and lows. First love. Falling in love. Breaking up. His first child. Discovering the world–on his own, or with his friends. Rediscovering the world through the eyes of his kids and grandkids. He’s fulfilled his promise in a way that someone who died young did not. The dead teenager missed out on so much. Even if the old man blew his opportunities, at least he had the opportunities to blow.  

Yet if you think death ends it all for young and old alike, then what difference does it make? What’s the value of personal fulfillment if you’re not around to value it? What's the point of a long, full life if you can't look back on your life? You can’t savor the fond memories. You can’t hang out with old friends. You can’t enjoy what each day may bring. If you die of old age, you don’t miss out on what you might have had, might have been, might have done–unlike those who die young. Instead, you miss out on what you actually had–and have. The dead teenager loses his potential joys, while you lose your real joys. How is one worse than the other?  

Indeed, there’s a sense in which the 90-year-old has far more to lose. For he has something to lose in the first place. The life he made for himself. A lifetime of experience. The cumulative goods of a lifetime. Friends. Family. Fond memories. A pet dog. A favorite place to go for a walk. Little things as well as big things. A past which layers the present. A past which enriches the present. A past which, like a mountain stream, pours forth into the present.  

There are two ways to miss out: to miss what you used to have, but lost–or to miss what you never had. An even greater loss is losing the very capacity to have or have had, be or have been. The moment he dies, he loses everything at one stroke. Loses the capacity to be fulfilled. He has no sense of anything. All is gone beyond recall. As a now-dead atheist once said:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

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