I think about death a lot.
Quite a long time ago, I think around middle school, I left the idea of heaven and hell behind forever. It just seemed too silly. My family wasn’t very religious, so it wasn’t a huge leap for me to give up on them, but I did at the time still entertain ideas of reincarnation and other not-altogether-materialistic phenomena. One favorite hypothesis I invented around the age of 13, after blowing through a stop sign on my bike and very nearly getting hit by a fast-moving car. It seemed to me so unlikely that I should have survived that lapse in judgment as to be impossible. What must have actually happened is that I did in fact get hit and die from my injuries, but just before the moment of truth, my consciousness transported to a parallel dimension – the one I was now standing in – in which the car narrowly missed me. Back in the dimension my consciousness had just moments ago inhabited, my parents would be mourning my early demise and my 3 year old brother would grow up an only child (I felt sincere sadness when I thought about them dealing with their loss), but here in this new dimension, I got to keep being alive and everything kept going along as usual. I imagined there were an infinite number of these parallel dimensions, and people’s consciousnesses just forever transported to new ones whenever they died. Everyone was immortal, but no one knew it: people experienced the deaths of others, unaware of the parallel dimensions in which they were still enjoying their company. In this dimension, Uncle Jerry didn’t make it out of surgery. But the way Uncle Jerry experienced it, he made a full recovery and is now playing shuffleboard in Miami Dade. Why this seemed less silly to me that heaven and hell, I’m not sure. But it did.
A little more philosophical as a 16-year-old, I theorized that, since matter could not be created or destroyed, and energy could never be created or destroyed, and life was made of matter and energy, life could never be destroyed. When we died, we didn’t cease to exist, but rather our matter and energy dissipated and changed form, and our consciousness became undifferentiated “consciousness stuff”, which could be drawn on by any new consciousnesses that happened to come into being. A little of my consciousness went into a rat, a little into a worm, a little into an osprey, a little into one of the Jonas brothers, etc. Sort of a communist approach to reincarnation, I guess.
If it makes any sense to describe something as dawning on you like a ton of bricks, that’s how I’d describe my realization a few years later, in college, that you just ended when you died. It’s not that the ride’s over, it’s that you’re over. You’re just gone, and along with you, as far as you know, everything is gone. There isn’t even anything there to experience what it’s like not to exist anymore. It’s not even blackness. It’s not even empty space. It’s not even silent.
When this first struck me, I couldn’t deal with it. I still have a hard time. I fantasize that mine will be the generation that “solves” death. The saying goes, “Death is an engineering problem”. I cling to that. In my expected life time, medical science will have advanced to a point where every problem can be fixed, aging can be slowed, stopped, reversed! Consciousness can be downloaded to machines that don’t need food or air to survive. Many thousands of years from now, the earth will no longer be inhabitable, but I will still exist as a computer with a robot body. My new processing and memory capabilities will allow me and every other former homo sapiens to know everything, to see infrared, ultraviolet, x-rays, gamma rays, to hear the lowest and the highest frequencies, to discern patterns with incredible sophistication, to communicate with other robot beings without the constraints of spoken language. We’ll be a race of robot space angels. We’ll even be backed up so that, should our CPUs be destroyed by a passing meteor, our consciousness will just download to a new “body” (you can imagine how I loved the new Battlestar Galactica series). Human ingenuity, and subsequently post-human, machine ingenuity, will conquer death, transience, impermanence!
It’s just another nice thought to distract me from the fact that one day, hopefully at least 18,000 or so after today (man, that number seems small when I write it down!), I will die, the atoms that comprise my body will move on to new adventures, and my consciousness will, well, stop existing. I’ve been becoming more comfortable with the idea lately. It’s certainly been wonderful in helping me to appreciate the things I have – love, relative comfort, stimulating conversations, etc. I think it may be as simple as that having something for just a little while makes it more special. It’s hard for me to fully articulate, and also a bit beyond my intended scope to discuss here, why I’m doing a little bit better with the concept of my own impermanence, but I am.
So what does all this have to do with air travel? As I said, I think about death a lot. Particularly in situations in which death is a possibility (I am guilty, as most people are, of irrationally fearing flying more than driving and most other forms of transportation, but that’s a subject for another day). When I’m flying, and we hit turbulence, or when we’re coming in to land, while I don’t flip out or have some kind of phobic episode, I do tend to close my eyes and imagine that death is imminent. I think about all the things I haven’t experienced and achieved yet. I think about how I haven’t really done what I want to musically yet, and what a drag it is that I’m only going to be remembered for having done what I’ve done so far (which, for most artists, I think, is never enough). I think about the people I love that I won’t get to say goodbye to.
One thing I have never done, though, in these moments where I’m accepting the possibility of imminent death, and even bracing for it in a way, is to pray. There’s this popular meme, “There are no atheists in a foxhole”, suggesting that it’s all well and good to live without God when things are going well, but no one will persist in denying His existence when standing on the precipice of the void. Very few things offend me. This does. The suggestion that I or anyone else would be so cowardly as to give up lifelong convictions when the chips are down is akin in my mind to that slight tinge of joy I used to feel when I was a smoker and someone else told me their latest attempt to quit had failed. I suppose it’s part of human nature to want one’s own shortcomings to be validated by the shortcomings of others, and that’s exactly what the foxhole epitomizes: I live in denial of my own mortality, and I resent you for being brave enough not to, but I’m sure that once you’re in a situation where you have a reasonable expectation of death, your resolve will crack and you’ll be just as little a man as I am, grasping at childish get-out-of-death-free cards that you don’t even care don’t really exist.
I have explored many different ways to deny the inevitable end of my consciousness, and will likely continue to do so (I think I’ll always cling to the space robot thing just cuz it’s so freaking awesome). But I’ve found great peace and joy have come instead from accepting it. And when the existential chips have been down (it’s not just fear of planes – I suffer from occassional panic attacks that immitate a lot of the symptoms of heart attacks), I’m happy to observe that I’ve never blinked in my refusal to accept the cheap comfort of eternal bliss.