On Dying

Well, Yorick, I guess you never knew your end anyway. (Photo of Hamlet from Wikipedia)

“Never in my life will I experience death…. I will never know an end to my life, this life of mine right here on earth…. People desperately hope never to know the end of consciousness. But why merely hope? It’s a certainty. They never will!”

—Herbert Fingarette’s 75-year old self.

This past week I tripped over a 2018 video of a 97-year old philosopher, Herbert Fingarette, contemplating his own looming death, and watched it with my wife and son. It was interesting in its sheer mundaneness. It started with Fingarette slowly getting out of bed, even more slowly getting dressed after a nurse massaged cream into his bloated legs, shuffling over to the kitchen with help of a walker, eating some bacon and eggs, and swallowing a handful of pills. Even at the end of life, things can be pretty routine.

But what made the film especially powerful was that Fingarette had written a book, Death: Philosophical Soundings, in 1996, when he was a spritely 75, exploring death and arguing that there is nothing to fear from dying. As he explained in the film, he argued in his book that, “There’s no reason to be afraid or concerned or anything about death because when you die, there’s nothing. You’re not going to suffer, you’re not going to be unhappy, you’re not going to…. Well, you just, you are not going to be.” In other words, once dead, you’re not conscious, you’re simply gone, “there’s nothing,” and thus there is nothing to fear. And yet, Fingarette’s 97-year old self—just days, weeks, or months away from death—was saying something very different. He was afraid to die; the idea of dying soon “haunted” him.

It was strange to see this. Here Fingarette was, clearly at the end of his lifecycle, his body breaking down, and yet his desire to live, his clinging to life seemed even stronger—or perhaps his immanent, undeniable appointment with death heightened his fear and clinging.

I admit readily that I too cling to life. I love being alive and greatly fear dying before getting to see my son grow to be a man (and helping him do so). And in a dark way, I hope to live long enough to see the many changes to the Earth that loom and the end of the consumer civilization. Not for the “I told you so” moment, but just to see what comes next—not doing so would be like when your favorite TV show is cancelled after a cliffhanger, only more so.* That said, I hope that at 97 or 87 or even 77 (assuming I survive the chaos that comes before then—a huge if), I will be more accepting that I had a good long life and that it’s my time to return to Gaia, no matter what surprises next season holds.

But watching this film, maybe I won’t?

But I hope I will. Because death comes for us all. And fearing it at 44 feels foolish (even if forgivable). Fearing it at 97 feels even more so.** Let me offer another quotation (and video), one that perhaps ironically is even more profound—that of ‘curious comedian’ (and philosopher) Adam Conover in his show Adam Ruins Everything reminding everyone that they will die:

“You are going to die…. It’s difficult to even imagine, isn’t it? Take a moment and try to picture what it’s like to not exist. You can’t do it. You’re imagining darkness, black. But there will be no black, there will be no color. Because there will be no you to perceive it. And your mind recoils from that idea. It’s simply unable to conceive of its own nonexistence. And so it concludes that it’s impossible. That you’ll live forever. But you won’t. All things end…. Life is an eddy in that current of entropy. A brief chemical reaction that lights up the darkness and then its fuel spent dissipates back to nothing. Just like you will…. While it’s difficult to hear this truth, it is essential that you accept it, because every second that goes by in which you don’t is a second of your precious and finite life that you risk wasting.”

The failure to recognize that death comes for all of us and that after death is nothing***—not blackness, not a perception of nothing but pure nothing, like the long gaps in consciousness while sleeping (not dreaming), only more so—leads us to make poor choices. And generates lots of unnecessary fear and anxiety.

I recommend you watch Adam’s entire soliloquy. Even Hamlet would be impressed.

On Being Spiritually Prepared

I can’t help but wonder whether Fingarette was afraid because he lacked a few things.

First, Fingarette was eclectic in his writings, having written on self-deception, psychoanalysis, death, alcoholism, ethics, and Confucius. So he must have been familiar with Eastern philosophies. And yet, he seems unfamiliar with the Buddhist understanding of impermanence—perhaps the philosophy’s greatest gift to humanity, and certainly the most important lesson on death there is. “All things ends,” as Adam, and the Buddha, note.

Even Gaia will one day die (hopefully from natural causes and not the humanavirus) and be swallowed by the sun. In the book, The Tibetan Yoga of Breath, Anyen Rinpoche and Allison Choying Zangmo note that there are seashells embedded in the high plateau of Tibet as it was once under a great ocean. A geological perspective helps make it clear just how much things change—mountains become plains, ocean beds become mountains, the climate bounces from hot to cold and back again,**** and continents undulate like ocean waves. This should help us accept that all our lives are over in a minute in Gaian time scales. The fact that everything has an end should offer us comfort rather than discord. And at 97, I especially hope so. Few humans reach that age, after all.

Second, a deeper connection with nature and Gaia might have helped as well. There is a moment in the video where Fingarette is sitting on his porch describing the beauty of the trees in his backyard and how he never noticed their beauty during his life:

“As I sit out now on my deck of the house, I look at the trees blowing a little in the breeze. And I’ve seen them innumerable times. But somehow seeing the trees this time is a transcendent experience. I see how marvelous it is and I think to myself I’ve had these here all along. But have I really appreciated them? And the fact is that I have not. Until Now. And in a way, it makes the fact of death even more difficult to accept.”

Opening yourself to nature helps to shatter the illusion that you are separate from Gaia. (Still from “The Meaning of Life“)

Only now in his last days did Fingarette see the trees for the forest. Had he observed the cycles of life, had he felt connection to and celebrated those cycles, perhaps he would have been able to better internalize an understanding of his own impermanence. Maybe he would have understood that the great cycle of life depends on the death of all beings. One being’s death feeds another’s life—from predators to decomposers, and everything in between.

And that understanding, while not a remedy to the non-existence that comes with death, reminds us that while our consciousness may no longer exist as our body unwinds into its elements, we will in some form nourish many future generations of life—and if we lead good lives while conscious we may live on as well through our deeds, works, and through others’ memories of us.

Related to that, a Gaian understanding of purpose could have helped Fingarette as well. He notes in the video that he often wanders around the house asking himself “What is the point of it all?” and responds, “I wish I knew.” Of course no one can know. And arguably “there is no point,” as Fingarette acknowledges himself.***** But as Kurt Vonnegut noted in Sirens of Titan, in that meaningless, there is a freedom to create one’s own meaning. His (or should I say Malachi Constant’s) discovered meaning was to love those around you. I’d argue, in this moment, with our understanding of the ecological crisis we are on the precipice of, our meaning is to serve Gaia. To help protect and heal Gaia and sustain Gaia’s potential to sustain life. There is no higher nor nobler calling than this.

Fingarette has been dead now for three years, having died shortly after this film was finished, and he is now feeding the next generation of life (unless he was embalmed and instead continues to toxify his surroundings). In either case he has ceased to be or wonder about the question of meaning. But those still living do—and always will. It is the curse of consciousness to do so, but it is the gift of consciousness to create an answer worthy of the question.

Perhaps at the root of one’s spiritual practice during life is simply an ongoing preparation for death—both the death of ourselves and loved ones, as well as our way of life and even a planet suitable for humans?

Endnotes

*In truth, not really a big deal. Who cares what happened to Rick after he blew up the bridge—my life will not be any better if I find out. But at the cliffhanger moment, it feels like it will. And when I die, if I do so slowly enough to be able to reflect on the end of my life, will I really care that I didn’t get to see what happened next? Perhaps it won’t really matter then. 

**Instead I hope I live everyday like it’s my last, never putting off conversations with friends I’ve missed, talking to my son every day, and so on.

***Or perhaps better said: “death doesn’t exist” at least for the being that dies.

****Not that this excuses willful or foolish efforts to accelerate this cycle.

*****Fingarette then acknowledges it is a foolish question, which this observation of Alan Watts reinforces: there is no destination in existence, it is by its nature playful. As with music, the goal is not to finish, just to play and enjoy the music, “the whole point of the dancing is the dance.”

Share this Reflection:

  1. Jon

    To help comprehend and cope with the idea of nothingness, I sometimes remind myself that I have indeed already experienced it – before I was was born – and it was perfectly fine!

Leave a Reply to Jon Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *