Follow Me On
The Woman in White Marble

{Click Marble or visit Books in the main menu}

Dis-Ease: Living with Prostate Cancer

{Click or visit Books in the main menu}

« Death ~ There’s Something to Dying Well | Main | Death ~ There’s Nothing Pretentious about Sadness »

Death ~ There’s Something Bewildering about Nothingness

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about death, my death specifically. No, as far as I know it’s not on the cards just yet, but reading Death and the Afterlife by the philosopher Samuel Scheffler and having been diagnosed with cancer in the past, I just got to thinking about it. As I said in Death ~ There’s Nothing Fearful about Nothingness and Death ~ There’s Nothing Pretentious about Sadness, when I started thinking about it three words kept coming to mind: fear, sadness and bewilderment. I did fear and sadness and now I’m stuck with bewilderment. I say stuck because I’m not entirely sure what it means in this context. Still, the word won’t disappear.

I must repeat what I said in Death ~ There’s Nothing Fearful about Nothingness. I believe my future is nothingness, not some kind of self-aware existence after my death. I have nothing against what is probably the majority of people who do believe in life after death. Life itself is so wonderful and so horrible that such a belief makes sense. When it’s wonderful it is hard to give it up and the longing that it may continue in some form or another can be intense. When life is horrible the longing that all our suffering, fears, heartaches, injustices will be rewarded by a new life of health, comfort and justice can also be intense. It goes without saying that believing in paradise is less frightening and sad then believing in nothingness. And I bet that those who do believe in an afterlife do not experience my bewilderment.

I’m a fan of the neurologist Antonio R. Damasio who argues that the bifurcation of the human mind/experience, into rationality and emotions is flawed. In Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain[1], he argues that both reasoning and feeling are necessary for a person to be whole and healthy, that in fact the sidelining of emotions and feelings undermine rationality. I mention this because when contemplating my death it is absurd to pretend that I can split myself in two, embracing my rationality and exorcising my emotions. To think rationally about my death is to embrace my feelings about my death. To acknowledge my feelings necessitates my thinking rationally. It is only in a kind of rational/emotional reasoning that I can make some sense out of the fear and the sadness. But what of the bewilderment?

Perhaps my Descartian bifurcated self can make sense of bewilderment: I intellectually can comprehend my nothingness. Throw in my emotions, however, and I’m stumped, which is to say that Dale as a whole being can’t truly understand, embrace, comprehend, imagine his own nothingness, because to do so has profound implications. I think bewilderment is my response to standing on the edge of those implications.

Perhaps I simply lack the mental and emotional capability to comprehend my own nothingness. My brain overloads and shuts down in self-defence, like when I try and imagine what the expanding universe is expanding into. Yes, I know I will return to nothingness, but how can that be? The “how can that be” question is not a rhetorical question, at least not for me. Nor is it a theological question. It is an existential question, which can easily lead to an existential crisis. My nothingness seems to call into question the meaning, purpose and value of my existence.

The opposite of nothingness is, of course, “something.” But other antonyms of nothingness are eminence, importance and significance, and these words take us deeper. While the logical opposite of nothingness is “something”, the ontological opposite of nothingness is “being.” My nothingness is the negation of my being, where “my being” means all that makes me me: my mind (you can substitute soul or spirit if either makes more sense to you) and all my memories, histories, experiences, knowledge, thoughts, contributions, potentials, plans, hopes, dreams, loves, joys, sorrows, fears, confidences. Obviously I left out my physical body in that list. I did so because in actual fact something of my physical existence will continue until the universe experiences its “cold death,” which is a long long way off. As I said in Death ~ There’s Nothing Fearful about Nothingness “ atoms will return to the cosmic dust and in time will contribute to the creation of something new (a sun would be nice).” So, nothingness will not have the final say regarding my physical being, but it certainly will regarding everything on the above list.

I experience bewilderment – confusion, incomprehension, disorientation, bafflement, puzzlement and maybe panic – when I attempt to contemplate my negation, which also means the negation of my meaning, purpose and value. While my atoms will survive, my essence will not. The question remains, however: While the negation of my meaning, purpose and value while I am still alive would certainly usher in an existential crisis, why would their negation after my death do the same? I suppose because it’s not about logic, but is about ontology. Being is important to us, it is us. Not being is a crisis.

So there you have it. It’s the best I can do. If I get hit by a fast moving truck, I’ll not have to concern myself with all this again. On the other hand, if one day some consultant in a hospital office tells me I have six months to live, then I most certainly will. If I get hit by that truck, I won’t have to worry about dying well. If I’m given a time line, then dying well will become paramount. But that’s another whole story.

Copyright © 2014 Dale Rominger

[1] Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. London: Picador, 1994.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>