Saturday, November 7, 2009

Hey, look at that! It's death!

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. It’s a very big part of a lot of peoples’ lives. People deny things all the time, for starters: “No, I didn’t know about that rule.” “Of course I didn’t sleep with her!” “I’ve never seen that Peruvian cocaine in my life!” But I’m talking about something deeper. Something darker. Something more pervasive, and less easy to brush aside as simple lying.

Let me try to explain by starting with the thought that prompted this… um, thought. I was contemplating death—something I do with greater frequency than I’d prefer, it seems—and I came to the realization that I live in a form of denial almost every day. As an atheist, I don’t believe in an afterlife. Which means when I die, that’s it. Doesn’t matter what I do during my life, I won’t get anything for it at the end. Now, I’m getting a lot better at accepting this as the way things are and finding fulfillment in it, but even so, there’s a nagging worry. No matter how much fame and fortunate I may amass, I won’t be able to change the following fact: one day, the universe will end. All humans will die. Our planet will be destroyed, our civilization lost, and no one will ever know we existed. It’s sad, but it’s true. And knowing this, how can I find much motivation to create anything? It’ll all be annihilated anyway.

Well, that thought was certainly a downer. Yet I’m writing this blog entry, and I write in my journal, and I write stories, and I’m working on a novel. Why? When placed side by side with the knowledge of the ultimate end of the universe, creating things seems like a futile endeavor. So what keeps me going?

Denial. Subconscious, unaware denial, but denial nonetheless. I just pretend it isn’t true. I put the thought out of my head and focus on the task at hand. After a short time of doing this, the thoughts are completely gone and I’m able to devote myself fully to any creative task I might be undertaking. Denial is a great tool for me, it seems.

Perhaps another analogy is in order. I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a chasm. If I want to accomplish anything, I need to keep my eyes zeroed in on something other than the chasm. Sure, I know in the back of my head that someday someone will push me and everything I’ve ever made into that black pit, but by pretending the pit isn’t there, I’m able to actually stay focused on my work. I deny reality to maintain my sanity.

And I don’t see anything wrong with that. Maybe I should? After all, isn’t that the underlying motivation for a lot of people when it comes to belief in the afterlife? They don’t want to face the fact that death is final, so they embrace a comforting thought, regardless of its truth value or how certain they are of its actuality. Is this what I do?

Well, no. Not really. Not even close, actually.

I don’t pretend that I’m not going to die. I don’t pretend that there’s something to look forward to after this life runs its course. I know full well that death is death, the end, goodbye, game over. Even when I’m at my most productive, I can look at the things I believe and find “death is final” among them. So perhaps denial isn’t the best word for this.

Yeah. That’s right. Denial isn’t the right word. I think I know what the word is.


I keep myself busy so that I don’t have time to focus on matters of mortality. In doing so, I don’t deny the truth of the proposition; I simply avoid thinking about it altogether. In that sense, I still do something that believers do—not think critically about what I believe—but I feel that this is simply the way life is, and if we were to do otherwise, we’d drive ourselves mad. Believers live unexamined lives because they’ve been taught to do so, and sometimes they know that examining their beliefs would result doubt. I live an unexamined life when I need to get other things done. But the key difference is this: I examine my life. I look at it with great frequency. Many believers do not.

Are they just doing what I do, though? Being distracted? I really don’t know. I feel like I’ve gotten very far from my original topic here. Guess I’ll just call this entry good and leave with this final comment: I don’t pretend that death isn’t waiting for me. I just ignore it when I need to get some living done.

1 comment:

  1. This might sound odd, but I think that an awareness of our mortality is a good thing. At most, we're here for 100 years. After that, we're gone. Everything we've created will eventually crumble and disappear. And yet we're alive. We get to experience these things that will one day be dust.

    But think of our importance to others. Every one of our actions has an effect on someone else who will only live a handful of decades. Their mortality makes our actions that much more significant.