Azrael my Higher Power? Why death is a liberating force

In a hundred years’ time, who’s gonna care? Old saying, more than a grain of truth to it. Death smiles at us all, another truism… Either it marks the beginning of a new journey into the Afterlife, in which case everything that has gone before suddenly becomes irrelevant (unless you really, really believe in perdition), or the lights get turned off permanently. I still incline to the latter opinion (irrespective of whether or not there is a god – why oh why do so many of us presume that life after death is a corollary of the existence of a supreme being or higher power? Perhaps that is a fitting subject for another post…).

Let’s assume that I’m right. That means in around thirty or forty years I will cease to exist. Not only that, but all my memories will cease to exist. It will be as though I have never been. All my suffering, all my joys, all my interests and all my ennui will vanish. As far as I am concerned, all my successes and failures will be rendered completely irrelevant by a single stroke of the Reaper’s scythe.

On that understanding, all that therefore matters is how I feel in any given moment. If I don’t feel like doing something, why should I worry about not doing it? Either you do something, or you don’t. In my experience, most atheists define their lives by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain and, if they are not completely selfish, by doing what they can to secure the same outcomes for those they care about and – if they’re real saints – extending that concern to those they don’t even know.

Right now I don’t feel like rehearsing for a gig I have lined up next week. Therefore if I choose to rehearse anyway I will be pushing myself into doing something I don’t feel like doing. The payback, and hence the motivating force in this case, is how I will feel when I perform next week. If I perform well I will say, well it was worth it pushing the issue and rehearsing. If I don’t rehearse and play badly, I will perhaps regret not having pushed the issue after all.

But what if I said it doesn’t matter how I feel next week? Good or bad, it will pass, as all moments do. Whether I play well isn’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things. In a hundred years’ time who’s gonna care, right? Life is a series of moments which we inhabit and leave behind us as memories, until we kick the proverbial, at which point all moments and all memories cease (for us atheists anyway). So why get wound up about anything? So far I have found my life to be a series of moments, some joyous and exhilarating, others excruciating and awful, many more besides somewhere in between these polarities. Judging by the past forty years, it seems reasonable to suppose that the next forty will be similar in composition (perhaps tipping more towards the latter towards the end of my life as I grow old, sicken and die, but then this fate is – as observed above – inevitable in any case).

So why strive after anything? Has striving after things really made any difference to the overall tally of moments (and therefore memories) good, bad and indifferent? I am currently rereading Albert Camus’ L’Etranger, and what strikes me most about the Meursault character is that he is presented as a man who lives in the moment and strives after nothing. The novel documents the last segment of his life, and in so doing details a series of moments as seen through the protagonist’s eyes – moments good, bad and indifferent.

All my life I have striven after things. This has, I have come to believe, brought me just as many moments of misery and heartache as it has moments of joy and fulfillment. Thus, in having striven, can I be said to be any less or more happy or sad than a Meursault, a man who strives after nothing? The only difference I can see is that I have my way of doing things, and Meursault has his: beyond this it is impossible to judge objectively who has been the more content over the course of his life.

I used to worry a great deal about letting time pass, about letting precious days slip away without making them ‘count for something’, but increasingly I find I am less concerned about such things. Death, or more precisely the apprehension of death, may have robbed my life of overarching purpose but it has also liberated it from the fear of wasted opportunity, of somehow not ‘making the most’ of life. Fundamentally who can be said to be the happier: the ordinary worker who lives for his coffee and cigarette break, or the captain of industry whose bean and tobacco plantations have made such things possible? Both persons will inevitably shuffle off this mortal coil, and when they do all their moments shall die with them.

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