A very good friend of mine recently came into contact with the grim reality of death and my great aunt also died a few weeks ago. It made me think somewhat about the nature of death, and how we humans always, always react to it. Human beings are afraid of death, I think it’s safe to say. No one wants to die. Don’t you find that funny? Don’t you find it a little humorous? No one wants to die and many people are scared of it. Why? There’s a famous saying; ‘In life you’re guaranteed two things; death and taxes.’ A humorous little quip, but one that’s very true; for I can guarantee, with 100% certainty, that every single human being currently alive on this planet will die. I guran-damn-tee.
So why are we afraid of dying? Moreover, why are we ever surprised, taken aback or shocked when someone else dies? We know they’re going to die, just as we know we’re going to die. It’s guaranteed. We have no problem doling out our own brand of death on, say, pesky insects, creatures that just die suddenly because they happen to fly into the wrong room, so why are we human beings afraid of the same death visiting us as suddenly as we visit it on them?
Of course I’m taking a very stark view of things here, and I know that it is often the emotion of the loss that shocks us. But really, when you think about it, shouldn’t we be preparing for the death of all those around us? Shouldn’t we be gearing up our emotions for great loss? Again, we know people are going to die. We don’t even know when. So why not start preparing early, instead of waiting for old age or terminal illnesses?
Of course, it is the human condition that affects or perception of life and death. We do not think about the mortality of our lives, because it is scary. If there is one thing I can guarantee you no one knows, it is where we go, or what happens when we die. And that vast, dark cloud of the unknown, is what makes us afraid. Sure people can put their faith in religion and notions of the afterlife, or find content in being matter going back to being matter and then nothing more, but however you concrete you may think your beliefs are, you can never, ever be certain. No one’s ever come back to tell us of what lies on the other side.
So we try to ignore it, and outrun it. We try to make ourselves live for longer, or brainwash ourselves into believing in a magical cloud city in the sky. Like the antelope trying to outrun a pack of lions, we keep loping forwards, our time ticking away bit by bit, or steps slowly getting more sluggish as the number of breaths we have left and the number of heartbeats we have allocated slowly tick away. Eventually the lion will catch us. And then we die. We cease. We expire. Life ends, and fulfils its purpose.
That is the purpose of organic life: To end. That is all it functions for. In the nearly hundred thousand years or so that human beings have really existed on this planet, our lives have ended. Our time, however brief, feels like a great, long journey, but comparatively, it’s nothing. And by comparative I mean comparative to the age of the universe. All the organic life that we know for certain exists that in this universe has been around for about one billion years. One thirteenth of the entire age of the universe. Human beings, the only organic life that we know of so far to be able to engage critically and rationally with their surroundings, has only been around for a hundred thousand years. Mankind is nothing more than a blink, a sneeze, a shiver of existence and a gasp of breath for the universe.
We are all trapped by time. By finality. By the knowledge that our end is coming. And that is what we try to outrun. Not just by our personal race against death as human beings, but by our condition, by the nature of what we are part of – organic life. Life itself is nothing more than a self replicating system. A heartless mechanism that, when you look at it seriously and starkly, flies in the face of our species’ need to romanticise every second of our existence. In our tiny moment of awareness, we explore, analyse, catalogue and probe the world around us with our brains, all in turn feeding in to the eventual collective consciousness of humanity. Thus we end up with things like history, archaeology, philosophy, art and science. Disciplines that are centuries old, built up over countless years so that we come to share the same experience of them today. We humans seem somewhat incapable to comprehend that our hardwiring, our instincts, our function as living beings, is not to catalogue ourselves, achieve transcendence, Nirvana or whatever, but merely to reproduce. That is what life is, and that is what life does.
We kill each other so others cannot kill us, we strive to cure diseases and ailments, we create Gods and afterlives that wait for us with open arms, so we never really die, we just move to a different plane and live their forever and ever. Our consciousness that allows us to think these things, is really a mere by product of our evolution, and in turn, has turned into another tool for us to try and outrun death. We grow smarter, learn new things, develop new vaccines and thoughts and dreams and machines and strive to become the eternal, undying gods we created in the infancy of our species. The more we understand, the more we can deal with it, the more we can maybe change it. But we cannot. Nothing can. The purpose of life is to end.
We are deathly afraid of the unknown and unwilling to accept the harsh truth of existence. Reproduction is a flawed system, but necessary in order to maintain the existence of organic life. Without it (reproduction), everything would die off bit by bit. Life reproduces in order to maintain its own presence in the universe. That is why we see phenomena such as natural selection, it is the organic life process ensuring that it survives climate changes, cures for diseases (if we’re referring to germs) or allowing one species to become smarter than another. This unconscious system, concerned only with its own preservation. “Life finds a way”, as Jeff Goldblum once said. But eventually, everything; all life in the universe will end. Every fragment of organic life, cattle, humans, fish, birds, apes, germs, tries to outrun death and tries to stave off its claws. But nothing can escape it. We just breed in order to keep our species here, so that our kind may continue to run the race we can never win.
One day however, the sands of time will run out, and everything will cease. The counter will stop. Will it be reset? Could things begin again under different rules? Who knows. It is pointless to theorize, in fact, the only thing we can do is realise that that which we have now, the privilege to exist and be aware of it, is somewhat of a miracle in itself. Don’t be depressed by the idea of death, or by what I have said, as it is merely the hard truth of nature of the universe. All we can do is accept it, and in doing so, maybe one day as a species we will start living for now. Living for the moments we actually inhabit, as opposed to the eternity we wish to end up in. Maybe, if we all realised that they only time that we definitely know we’ll have in this universe is this that we’re experiencing right now, with these fellow living beings, all inhabiting the staggering coincidence that existing in this massive shared experience of organic life, then things would be a little better in the world. Maybe if we realised that this universe is not built up around us, and that we truly are on our own as life forms, then maybe we’d learn to stop bickering, and maybe we’d learn to get along.