Pause for Thought with Julian Bagini: Death

by Julian Bagini, originally published in the 2012 Autumn edition of Humanitie magazine.

I sometimes wonder if the core difference between supporters and opponents of assisted dying is that the latter think death is the worst thing that can happen to you while the former think it’s not really that big a deal.

Don’t get me wrong: Right to die advocates are in no hurry to shake off this mortal coil, and nor are they casual about helping others get rid of theirs. But intellectually at least, they are often persuaded by the various arguments that death is nothing to worry about.

It can’t be bad for us because we won’t be there. It’s only a problem for those we leave behind, deprived of our out-of-tune singing, bad jokes and all the other things that make us so adorable.

As much as we love life, that’s no reason to hate death.

I’ve always felt somewhat ambivalent about this line of reasoning. In some ways it makes perfect, logical sense. But at the same time it seems to miss something.

Being troubled by the thought of being dead does not seem to be simply a kind of mistake. The root of a legitimate unease about death is to be found precisely in that feature of it that is used to reassure us: in death, we no longer are. That’s a pretty big deal. Part of what it means for any person to exist is that a whole world exists through them. Your life is not just the life of a single organism, it is everything you see, do, taste, smell, touch, and hear.

When you die that whole universe dies with you. That’s a pretty remarkable thing to try to get your head around. One moment, a rich world of sense perceptions, thoughts and feelings exists, the next it just doesn’t.

That is surely a monumental kind of loss. It misses the point to say that nothing will be there to experience the loss: the whole problem is that the experiencer is the thing that is lost in the first place.

This is what I think the existential vertigo of the meaninglessness of existence really hinges on. The idea that there is no ultimate purpose or transcendent value is easy enough to accept. But the idea that our whole worlds vanish into puffs of nothing makes it easy to feel that it’s all pointless. All that fuss for literally nothing.

I know, and in some sense feel, that the only intelligible answer possible is that life has to be its own answer and as long as there is a world for us we can appreciate what is of value in it and live for its own sake. But at the same lime I think it’s worth remembering that the sense of despair and hopelessness that the thought of death can evoke is not just an irrational irritant we should try to overcome or ignore. Death is a kind of tragedy and its finality is a constant threat to our sense of meaning.

The idea that we should just get over it seems to me a shallow response to this most profound of mysteries: that an entire universe can come and go with one last heartbeat.

Pause for more thought with Julian:

Image courtesy: Lori Semprevio, Creative Commons


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