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« Death ~ There’s Something Bewildering about Nothingness | Main | Death ~ There’s Nothing Fearful about Nothingness »

Death ~ There’s Nothing Pretentious about Sadness

Last week, in Death ~ There’s Nothing Fearful about Nothingness, I got to thinking about my own death, motivated by the influences of having read Death and the Afterlife by Samuel Scheffler[1] while dealing with the lingering shadow of having had cancer.[2] I wrote that when I think of my death three words come to mind: Fear, Sadness and Bewilderment. Last week it was Fear, this week Sadness.

While fear is very real, associate mostly with the transition from death as a distant idea to death as today’s reality, it is not my predominate emotion when thinking about my death. Sadness is.

Whenever I try and imagine my not being here, it simply saddens me. I feel sad because all that is me – memories, histories, experiences, knowledge, thoughts, contributions, potentials, plans, hopes, dreams, loves, joys, sorrows, fears, confidences, relationships, face, hands, arms, chest and all the way down to my toes – will no longer exist. And when thinking about my ceased existence, a question spontaneously pops into my head: how can the totality of all that simply no longer exist? What a damn waste. What a sadness. Surely that kind of loss needs to be acknowledged in some way, preferably some profound way.

When the feeling of sadness engulfs me a second emotions runs up just behind, like a younger sibling trying to catch up. This younger sibling is embarrassment which comes from the thoughts: You’re feeling sad because you’re dead? How pretentious of you. Who the hell are you to feel sad about the loss of your rather insignificant existence? Who the hell do you think you are?

Well, fair enough. I am not important in the grand, or even minor, scheme of things. This is not a statement of false modesty. I simply am not. I am like most people in this regard. Except to my family and friends I am fairly invisible. I am easily forgettable. Again, in the large and small scheme of things, there will be nothing universally tragic about my non-existence. I googled: How many people die each day around the world? I got between 152,505 and 154,138.[3] One day I will be one of them. No more, no less.

Embarrassing or not, however, I do feel sadness when contemplating my non-existence. It is my non-existence after all. And while I am certain I have not been the best son, brother, cousin, uncle, husband, friend, employee and citizen in the world, nonetheless, I still kind of like me. Don’t get me wrong. I give myself a good kick from time to time, but still, I could be a lot worse.

I would suggest, that it is not pretentious to actually like yourself enough to mourn your own passing into nothingness. Just don’t get stuck there.

There is a second source of sadness. I feel sad for my family and friends. In my novella Alien Love, my protagonist Pepito Pusinka Russell is somewhat full of himself, I hope in a humours and loveable way. Early on in the story, speaking of his own death to a psychiatrist, he says:

I don’t know how or when I will die. However, my gut level knowledge of my finitude is grounded in my make-believe death, that is, in imagining my own death. And I can’t imagine my make-believe death without survivors. Without them my dying would be tarnished. Without them it would have no meaning. I see them attending  the memorial service, standing at my grave, going back to the house for food, speaking in lowered tones and sharing the appearance of laughter. I am saddened by their ordeal, to the point of tears. My death commemoration, optimistically called a celebration of my life, is, as I imagine it, like Theodor Storm’s description of such an event in The Rider on the White Horse: “ The banquet table seemed to sag under the silence and loneliness.” I think that says it all. I see them literally surviving my death, though it will be difficult for them. I see them reacting to it, living with it. I see them moving on and through the event of my death. It is their living through it that will give my death meaning. Their lives will be changed by my death. How could it be otherwise? [4]

As you see, Pepito Pusinka Russell is not bothered by feelings of embarrassment concerning his potential pretentiousness as I am. When I image my own death and non-existence, my assumptions of how it will affect those close to me impact my emotional response. It saddens me that they will suffer and that they will have to live on without me. It is the second clause in that sentence that ushers in more embarrassing questions: So you think you are so indispensible, do you? You think they can’t get on without you? Well, who the hell do you think you are?

Again, fair enough. But in my defence, I am quite clear in my mind that I am not indispensible and I am equally clear that my family and friends will get on in life just fine without me. But if relationships mean anything, it is not wrong for me to be saddened that they will experience sorrow. In fact, if I did not, you should question my ethical integrity and my understanding of relationship itself. Nor is it s farfetched to feel sadness when imagining the impact of my absence in their lives. Surely if I am worth anything, and if my participation in the relationship has/had any value, then surely they will notice my being gone from their lives, and sometimes with sadness. And, importantly, the concern for other’s sorrow takes me out of myself and helps me avoid getting stuck in self-mourning.

I would suggest, that it is not pretentious to acknowledge that your family and friends will mourn your passing into nothingness. Just don’t overdo it.

There is one last source of sadness that needs brief comments. It saddens me that I will miss out on so much. I mentioned last week that I regret that I will not be around when humankind finally discovers life on another planet. The human adventure, though fragile, continues and I will not be a part of that, mostly as a witness obviously, but still I belong to this sometimes amazing and sometimes despicable species. I would like to see where we are are going.[5]

So I feel sadness for myself, for my family and friends and for missing out on the human journey when thinking about my death and non-existence. I want to emphasise, that while sadness can be intense, it is not a tragic sadness. It would be if death were a rare occurrence and it just happened to befall me or if I were a person of note – an artist or thinker or even a politician. None are the case which means the sadness is deeply personal and specific, but not tragic.

To say that contemplating my non-existence can be at time frightening and sad, is not to say that I actually understand it. So, next week, Death: There’s Something Bewildering about Nothingness.

Copyright © 2014 Dale Rominger

[1] As I said last week: “It’s important to note that by afterlife Scheffler is not talking about the continuing existence of an individual after death. He’s talking about the continuation of the human species after an individual’s death and what that means to the understanding and valuing of our lives. It’s a very interesting book, though I have to confess I was sympathetic to his argument going in.”
[2] The phrase “have had cancer” is somewhat ambiguous. At present it appears I am clear of cancer. However, it’s cancer, so for the rest of my life I will be checked to see if the bastard has returned.
[3] I must confess the exact nature of the numbers make me sceptical.
[4] Rominger, Dale. Alien Love or Thank You Alpha Centauri. Bloomington: Xlibris  Publishing, 2012, pp 32-33.
[5] There is a flip side to this concern. It may be that our species is, in effect, committing suicide through climate change which may lead to conflict and war. The future may be bleak and we have no other planet to go to. So, at times I am actually glad I will not be around to see what is going to happen.

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