Between the wake of living and the insensibility of death: the experience of now

It’s an old and familiar trope; as a young man, it would enrage me.

Picture it: an old person, who is tired of living, decides that they are ready to die. Then, they close their eyes and die, as if the matter was decided in that moment — probably after some important milestone had passed and some important wisdom had been imparted.

The decision itself to die is not, I think, the key issue. Death as the ultimate sacrifice, in the name of some higher principle or for the benefit of some other person, has always tickled my adolescent fancy. Likewise, for as long as I can remember, I have always thought suicide to be an appropriate response to a cruel and terminal illness, even if it isn’t the choice I would make for myself.

I think the trope enraged me because it eulogized a decision to acquiesce to death’s inevitable and final ushering for no other reason than the old person’s indifference to life. The old person could live longer; they simply choose not to because they don’t much see the point in living any longer. It seemed to me to be the ultimate betrayal of the very idea of life, in all of its stubborn glory. Death is not an undiscovered country; it is an insensibility to be resisted at all costs until the very moment of consumption and consummation.

However, now that I have made it to middle age, I have found that the trope no longer enrages me. The decision to acquiesce to death, however unpalatable such acquiescence  may be to me, even seems to make sense, once the nature of lived experience is rightly understood.

When I was younger, lived experience seemed much more concrete and enduring, even after it had already been lost under the wake of living, because the amount of lived experience I could remember seemed to be much more than the experience I had forgotten. Sure, I couldn’t remember every detail of waking life but, on the whole, it felt like my experiences lived on with me in my memories.

At forty-five, however, the ledger of memories and lived experience is not at all balanced. I have undeniably forgotten much more of my life than I can now remember. I can no longer pretend otherwise: experience is gone forever once it is lived and our very fallible and fleeting memories can’t preserve or resurrect it. In terms of the experience of lived experience, the only difference between living and death is that the now of living is experienced and the now of death is not. The past is as unknowable as the future, whatever the fantasy of memory might otherwise try to tell us.

Now that this insight has taken root, it has become much easier for me to imagine a time when I will be able to look forward into death and look back onto life and not really see that much difference in terms of the experience of lived experience. As a young person, the experience of now was a supernova that illuminated all horizons; today, it is a star bright enough for me to look back with fondness and forward with anticipation, despite the shadows growing all around me; looking out towards 80 or 90 (and, hopefully, 100 or 120), it is very easy to imagine that the experience of now might feel like a pale dim light in a universe of nothing stretching in all directions. If that is the case, persistence for the sake of persistence might not seem to really add or subtract from the final ledger; and acquiescence to an insensible future might not seem so different from an attachment to the insensible past. Maybe, just maybe, I will also be ready to close my eyes and slip away quietly.

But, let me say this now! If some future Sterling starts nattering on about going gently into that good night, he is a rogue and a fraud! Here me now and believe me later: attach every machine, do all the surgeries, and give me every drug; do whatever it takes to keep my faint ember of consciousness aglow, no matter the suffering I may endure. I expect future Sterling will feel the same; however, because younger Sterling would probably be enraged at my defence of the enraging trope, I shall err on the side of caution: let my will today bind his then. If future Sterling ever loses sight of the faint ember of his experience in the engulfing insensibility of past and future, give him a stiff rum or two and send him to bed. I’m sure he will be fine in the morning. He’s probably just had a bad day. Plus, if he has got to go, he will probably want to go quietly in his own bed, enveloped in  a nice light glow.

A Dangerous Pillow Thought: There’s No Experience Like It

PeekaBrutalIt happened at the exact moment you wouldn’t want it to happen.

My head had hit the pillow with a determined, if groggy, purpose. I had had a productive day at work. I had been to the gym. For the first time in a long time, I had worked on editing a video, and, in doing so, I had reminded myself of how much I enjoyed the craft of it. I had earned, and was ready for, an easy drift into the unknown comfort of sleep. I was determined to make it so.

Instead, as soon as my head hit the pillow, my mind, which had been foggy with sleep mere minutes before, raced off into parts unknown. Of those wild wanderings, of the paths taken and the sights seen, I am now sure of only one port of call. I found myself reminiscing about one of my heart bursting teenaged crushes, which had, of course, gone uncommunicated and unrequited. A crush from whom I had received my first wedding invitation.

And then it happened.

I’m not sure if it happened because of the bittersweet remembrances of the sublime joy of teenage angst or if it was caused by some other wild wandering now forgotten. Whatever the cause, I had the very thought any sensible person should avoid while waiting in the dark of night for sleep.

I will not experience death. Death, as inevitable as it may be, is not a subjective experience. All that I am shall end and I won’t even know it. Death is a certainty we will never know.

If you have never reflected on this inevitable outcome of life and if you have never come to understood its implications deep in the resonating well of your soul, don’t worry, it’s not impossible to describe. There is always a sense of perfect clarity, which is perceptual, emotional, and conceptual. You, the world, everything looks and feels sharp, defined, and profoundly immanent. It is as if the unreal, which is a gauzy mediation between experience and understanding, is simply no longer there. The experience, not unlike one’s first encounter with HDTV, is more real than real. Inevitably the mammalian survival instinct kicks in, triggering a dread-filled and heart-racing panic, as it fights and flights in all directions at once.

Or so I thought.

This time, another instinct kicked in and prevailed. Fearing the long restless night that was sure to follow the adrenalized flight from death’s certainty, some part of me resisted the easy slide into fear and trembling. Instead, I perched on the precipice between understanding and dread and I experienced the clarity of understanding, as if from a distance, without slipping into the heart racing panic. After a moment of unexpected teetering, I turned my attention to sleep and somehow managed to slip away into it.

Because the experience had happened so close to sleep, I might have forgotten it, like a dream. Instead, the very next day, I had another confrontation with the nonexperience of death at the most unexpected of moments.

The winter night had already comfortably settled itself, when I emerged into it. The air was cool, fresh, and crisp. Directly in front of me, a tall tower of office lights thrust into the sharply defined night, drawing my spirit up and away along its solitary axis. Perhaps it was the abrupt shift from the cloistered and artificial light of the office into the wide open clarity of the winter night; or, perhaps, it was a return of the repressed experience of the previous night. Either way, once more, that sharp clarity of understanding, which is so often triggered by a deep understanding of one’s own mortality, reframed all aspects of my experience. Fortunately, I remembered that it was possible to step back from the easy descent into fear and trembling. I did, and I walked for a few minutes in the clear beauty of a world framed by the knowledge that my experience of it would inevitably be no more.

In reflecting on both experiences, I realized that death is only one of the many unknowable non-experiences that exist beyond the frame of living. Life itself, once experienced, disappears forever beyond the event horizon of memory. Philosophers sometimes wonder what it might be like to be a bat, but now I wonder what it might be like to have been myself. Although I once experienced being five, fifteen, and twenty-five, in the same way that I won’t experience what it is like not to be, I can’t experience again what I was. Our memories are not objective snapshots retrieved from pristine archives, they are reconstructions made in the here and now. Memories of your past experience are profoundly shaped by your present experience and everything that made it just so. The inclination that one can directly access past experience through memory is as mistaken as the inclination that death itself will be experienced.

It was once said to me on Twitter that the fear of death diminishes with age. I didn’t believe it then, but, now, after my recent experience, I am more inclined to believe it. It isn’t so much that the fear is gone, but my reaction to it has changed. Perhaps the same part of our brain that tames our adolescent risk-taking also tames our metaphysical risk-taking, and maybe they are both variations on the same theme.

We are, it seems, experiencing beings that are surrounded on all sides by oblivion. It is only a trick of the brain that lets us think otherwise. Dying is a fact of life but death isn’t. Life, I think, becomes an end in itself only when we understand and accept that it would otherwise only be a means to death.

And that, for me, is beautiful.

The Living or the Dying: Who Should We Trust?

WinterTreesWhat truly matters in life?

The dying and almost dead seem always to offer the same answer. The living seem always to offer the wrong answer.

Or do they? Why should we be so inclined to take the word of the dying over the living?

In the face of death, we are capable of unspeakable betrayals, crimes, and self-delusion. Perhaps, it is the living who have the luxury of wisdom, while the dying and almost dead have only the poverty of imprudence.

To further complicate matters, the brain remembers very differently than it experiences. With a few tricks of timing and intensity, the remembering brain can be tricked into choosing for itself one of two experiences which is objectively worse than the other. Are we experiencing or remembering, when we face death? Is it a remembering that demands an experiencing or an experiencing that necessarily diminishes what is remembered? In our final months, days, and minutes, what tricks of timing and intensity might be affecting our judgement?  

Admittedly, there are many far-from-dying sages who have offered the same answer to the question of what truly matters as the dying and almost dead offer, but these answers are motivated by a deep understanding of the fact that we are all dying. Birds of a feather flock, cherish, and die together.   

So, who should we trust? The vanities of the living seem pointless to the dying. The myopia of the dying seems pointless to the living. The answer to this final question lies, I think, in an experience shared by both the living and the dying — the sated joy of being in the presence of the wide open being of the very young.

The very young are a direct connection to the divine pleasure of a wide open, loving, and enchanted being that we know we experienced but can’t remember directly, a being which is too easily lost in the wind chasing that we learn to call living because we are so afraid of dying. The living and the dying both learn in the incandescence of the very young all that matters in life. The dying, however, don’t have the time to forget the lesson over and over again.

Happy New Year.


Death Is The Only Consideration: Be Moral Because You Are Moral.

MoralityDeath, I’ve come to realize, is the only consideration. No reason for action survives its event horizon. Without immortality, a rational justification of morality, in the long term, is impossible.

Tomorrow, for example, I could choose to devote my life to the health and well-being of all other humans or, perhaps, only those most in need. Once I die, however, whatever good I experienced (and whatever hardships I endured because of my virtuous behaviour) dies with me. The people I helped will also one day die, and whatever good or hardship they experienced will die with them too.

Alternatively, I could choose to devote my life to harming all other humans or, perhaps, only those most deserving of such treatment. Once I die, however, whatever hardship I experienced (and whatever good I might have experienced thanks to my vicious behaviour) dies with me. The people I harmed will also one day die, and whatever good or hardship they experienced will die with them too.

Good and evil, hardship and suffering, virtue and vice, they are experienced and do not exist or perpetuate beyond those who experience it. We, of course, create conditions that will have an effect on future generations, but, even so, those effects will die with those generations too.

Effectively, on a long enough timeline, all our actions — moral or immoral — are inconsequential because they and their effects cease to be experienced. The total amount of happiness or suffering generated is inconsequential. The total amount of virtue or vice inculcated is inconsequential. The number of times people acted or did not act in accordance with a universal moral law is inconsequential. Even coming to understand or not understand the full meaning of death is inconsequential. It’s an experience like any other. It also won’t survive death.

Our genetic material, of course, will likely survive much longer than the effects of our actions. Nevertheless, even if we become self-consciously Darwinian, acting only in those ways that maximize the safe transmission of our genetic material, it does not seem likely that the species or its ancestors will survive forever. It’s theoretically possible, but it is too thin and tenuous a possibility upon which to build anything like a rational morality.   

I am, nevertheless, not terribly concerned by my revelation. I am moral or immoral because of an unknowable causal history over which I have exercised almost no control. Understanding that there is no rational justification for moral or immoral behaviour — really, any behaviour at all — seems unlikely to affect how I behave. At most, it may affect how I assess my behaviour and the behaviour of others. For me, it seems a bit silly to feel high and mighty about choices that weren’t made by me but, instead, have happened to me. Of course, that assessment is probably but one more happening that has arisen from the loose anarchical confederacy of environmental interactions for which my conscious mind takes credit.

I am reminded of a story I read in Zen Speaks. A doctor faces an existential crisis because he can’t see the point of practicing medicine when he inconsequentially saves the lives of soldiers who go on to die in battle. Whether in war or peace, death is the final end of all medicine. A doctor, at best, delays the inevitable, so why bother? The doctor returns to his battlefield medicine when he realizes that he practices medicine precisely because he is a doctor.

The universe is neither rational nor irrational, even if we humans have developed a rationality with which to make sense of it. Likewise, morality is neither rational nor irrational, even if moral behaviour has helped us to evolve into creatures capable of rationality. Rationality, I think, requires us to accept that there may be no rational justification for some of our most fundamental behaviour.

So, why be moral? Because you are.

The Bucket List: Human, All Too Human

HumanReasonA bucket list is the purest form of human irrationality.


Because it is a list of desired experiences drawn up in the name of the very thing that will eradicate the relevance of those experiences to the person who desires them. All experiences, good or bad, too few or too many, are leveled to nothing in death.

Moreover, once death comes, the length of one’s life is also leveled to nothing. Whether death happens now or forty years from now, once dead, it will make no difference to the dead.

And, yet, I can’t reason myself to choose or accept death. Reason tells me that death’s leveling wake reduces life to irrelevancy, but some part of me chooses life over and over again. Irrationally, I want to live as long as possible and accumulate as many meaningful experiences as possible.

That means, I suppose, I’m not as inhuman as I sometimes think I am.