Thinking about death
From the IAmAnAtheist.com feedback form:
Hi. I was wondering if you would be able to offer some advice. I agree with pretty much everything you say on this blog, thus, I normally derive a lot of satisfaction from reading the comments and emails you receive from both like-minded individuals and atheist-haters. My family have never forced religion upon me or any of my siblings, my primary school, however, felt otherwise & I think the head teacher was/is a Christian and deemed it necessary to drill religion and songs of praise into every pupils head, regardless of their background. I’m 21 now, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been happy living my life as an atheist, but more recently I’ve had a bit of a problem with thoughts of death, and I find myself thinking about it more than can be healthy. I think one of the notions of Atheism, in that ‘there is most likely nothing after we die’ is scaring me more than I can handle, and has been for several months now. When I look at the grand scheme of things in this context, and how insignificant we all are, I find it harder and harder to see any point to anything, and this brings me down: I don’t want to feel this way. I read somewhere that this fear I am experiencing has something to do with my ego’s selfish desire to be remembered by someone or anyone after I die, because I am unable to accept the reality of my fate. This scares me even more. Have you ever felt the same? If so, any tips on how to deal with it? I have asked several people close to me and they all seem content with responding with ‘I try not to think about it’ which in turn pushes me further away from them. And while this may very well be the same advice you’ll give me, I know you’re far more opinionated than a lot of people out there. Perhaps it’s a symptom of manic depression or maybe I’m going through some kind of transitional period – who knows. It would just be nice to get some feedback on it, with a bit more in depth advice or for someone to say that they feel/have felt the same, so I don’t feel so isolated! Thanks :P
I have heard from more than one atheist who had this sort of problem, and I’m happy to share my thoughts on the subject.
As an atheist, I agree that there’s no reason to believe in any kind of life after death. The problem is that our culture places a very high value on eternal existence, and any time a culture places a high value on something that doesn’t exist, it’s going to bring anxiety to those who realize the truth.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking about death, and I disagree with those who advise you not to think about it. Death is a part of life, it is something you have to deal with, and hiding from it does no good. That said, an atheist has nothing to fear from death. Being dead doesn’t hurt, and dead people have no cares or concerns. Dying itself can be painful, but that’s another issue. Atheists can, at least, take comfort in the fact that no matter how bad a sickness or injury, suffering cannot be permanent.
Certainly if you are obsessing about death as opposed to just thinking about it, that might be part of a larger problem. There’s nothing wrong with seeking counseling or talking it out with friends or loved ones if you fear that you are becoming obsessed or that your thoughts about death might be a sign of some underlying condition like depression. Certainly you should seek help if the idea of dying seems increasingly appealing. However, just thinking about death is not, in and of itself, evidence that there’s anything wrong with you.
You said, “I read somewhere that this fear I am experiencing has something to do with my ego’s selfish desire to be remembered by someone or anyone after I die, because I am unable to accept the reality of my fate.” I don’t think that this conclusion is necessarily true — one can have a healthy ego and want to be remembered even if there is no trouble accepting the reality of mortality. I certainly would like to be remembered, or at least to make a difference in the lives of others, because that’s the only kind of immortality available to us. (And as an aside, if anyone has ego problems that impact their view of reality, I’d say that it’s those religious folks who think the entire universe is without meaning unless they personally are immortal.)
Now we get to the big question: If life isn’t eternal, then what’s the point?
I’d say, if life isn’t eternal, then enjoying — or, at least, wisely using — what you’ve been given is the point. If you have a modest income, you plan carefully and save up for the things that make you happy; you don’t say, “I’m not a billionaire, so why should I bother?”
This doesn’t mean that your life is a failure if it isn’t a fulfillment of all your dreams. A person could be an abject failure but take satisfaction that even though they didn’t get what they desired, they at least took risks and gave themselves a chance or helped others along the way. You can be fulfilled by knowing that you have done what’s right, even when the universe didn’t give you everything on a silver platter.
Is that not enough for you? That’s okay — it doesn’t have to be.
As you pointed out, people often say that we can find a kind of immortality by being remembered. I’d say you don’t even have to set the bar that high. There are many ways you can make a real, tangible difference that will last beyond your death, even if nobody remembers you: Create something. Fix something. Try to change minds about an important issue. Do work for charity. Help someone who needs help. Do something nice you aren’t required to do. Help an animal. Even if nobody remembers who did these things, they will have been done and will have improved the world, even if just a little.
I’m going to give you some examples from my own life of things I do that I feel give my existence meaning. These may or may not be the kinds of things you’d do, but I’ll bet you can find equivalents in your life that are as meaningful as these are in my life.
Some things I do for a meaningful life:
- This blog. I specifically try not to talk about who I am because I want discussion and ideas to be the star, not me. If I can get people to think about morality and reality, I’ve improved their lives, even if I haven’t changed their minds.
- Along those same lines, I frequently engage with people offline in discussions of religion and morality to help create a society full of thoughtful people.
- I live a moral existence. As a moral atheist, I can feel satisfaction that I am being ethical to the best of my ability. Sometimes this is hard, and sometimes it makes me do things I don’t really want to do, but at the end of the day it helps me feel I’ve accomplished something good.
- I set a good example. I think there should be social pressure toward moral behavior, I want people to have difficulty saying “All atheists are immoral” or any such silliness, and I want people who think atheists are weird or evil to have their beliefs sorely tested when they discover I’m not religious.
- I pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I sometimes feel like I’m in a race to understand as much as I can in the little time I have, and every time I learn something new it’s like I’ve won a prize. New scientific discoveries and mysteries make me giddy (seriously).
- I have a teenage son, and I take great pride in trying to prepare him well for the future. He does not always make the same decisions I would have made (e.g., he’s been a vegetarian since he was four), but I am proud that he is thoughtful, honest, and independent.
- I try to make good things happen for other people. For example, I am a huge Disneyland fan (I also run a Disneyland blog), and when I’m in the park I look for opportunities to do things for others that will make their day memorable. I might buy a bottle of water for a teenager who I overhear worrying about whether she has enough cash for a drink, help someone find something if they’re wandering around looking puzzled, point out interesting things that might otherwise go unnoticed, do magic tricks for people stuck in a long unmoving line, or join in a game where there are bigger prizes if there are more players (and give my prize to a child if I win).
- I look for opportunities to do good things in daily life, too. I might anonymously leave a treat in the break room at work for everyone to share, offer to help someone struggling with groceries, pick up a bicycle that’s fallen over on the sidewalk, retrieve a child’s ball from the street, or compliment a stranger who I saw do something particularly nice or entertaining.
- I support the arts by purchasing books and music from artists I enjoy, donating to podcasts, and letting those who create things I love know that they are appreciated. Even when there are free alternatives, I feel like I am helping foster creativity by rewarding it.
- I write, both fiction and nonfiction. That’s my little bid for the “always be remembered” kind of immortality. But frankly being remembered that way isn’t as important to me as making people happy while I am around to enjoy it.
So, to sum up: think about death but don’t worry about it; create meaning; treasure what you have.
I hope something in here is of use to you. Let me know.