Sunday, June 17, 2007

Death II: deal with it!

I've made some progress since my post about why I don't like death.

Every now and then I feel this glimmer of "It's not such a horrifying thing that I'll never see what becomes of the human race and that one day (and forever after that) my consciousness will cease to exist. That's life, and when I'm dead I won't know the difference."

I'm always really proud of myself when I think that way, but unfortunately those moments are few and far between. Most of the time it's more like a constant stream of (whenever I get a free moment) thinking "Now what was it that I'm not supposed to think about since it leaves me paralyzed with dread, yet there is absolutely nothing I can do about it? Oh yeah, death. D'oh!!!"

Maybe that's why I keep so busy?

I think I've pinpointed part of the problem, though. It upsets me to contemplate my "legacy" i.e. how I will be remembered after I'm dead. The Indigo Girls' song about Virginia Woolf illustrates what I'm talking about:

They published your diary and that's how I got to know you
key to the room of your own and a mind without end
here's a young girl on a kind of a telephone line through time
the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend.

One of the main reasons I write is to make a connection with people. So in some ways this stanza represents a beautiful dream -- to continue to make new friends through my writings even after I'm no longer there to do it in person. The problem with this dream comes a little later in the song:

if you need to know that you weathered the storm of cruel mortality
a hundred years later I'm sitting here living proof.

See the problem?

As sweet as that sentiment is, Virginia Woolf did not "weather the storm of cruel mortality." She's dead. Completely dead. As dead as Charlemagne, as dead as Ozymandias, as dead as some random Mesopotamian peasant whose name has been forgotten for seven thousand years. (Actually maybe even more dead than Ozymandius since he's a fictional character.)

So the "telephone line through time" is a sad image because in reality it's a one-way communication. Virgina Woolf cannot meet her new friend or swap confidences with her or go out for tea with her or even know of her existence. It's almost a pretty picture except that a main protagonist is absent. So the ultimate fantasy happy ending -- being loved by future generations -- isn't a happy ending at all.

Again my Mormon formation shows up as a part of who I am today. All of the focus and value placed on family history has made it so that when I write, I think of my audience as "future generations." That's the wrong fantasy for an atheist to have. There's no reason to shoot for the "most influential people of all time" list because even if I were to make it, it's not as though I'll be there in heaven signing autographs for people. If I want to make a connection with people through writing, the time is now! (Through a blog, for example...)

I'm not saying one should forget about future generations -- far from it. You shouldn't forget about the needs of future generations any more than you should forget about people in need who are alive right now. But if you're a humanist, you work to leave the world a better place for their sake, not your own.

That said, if someone is reading my stuff after I'm dead, I'm not going to say "No! Put it down! Right now!!!" (How could I? ;^) )

I don't have a problem accepting a lot of the limitations of being human (see QZed's post on that), but I guess I'm still working on accepting the fact that my total experience is limited in time as well as space. Baby steps!!! :D


C. L. Hanson said...

Cross-posted here.

JulieAnn said...

I totally see your point. I, however, never want my journals read by my progeny. They would die at what a slut their GGGGGGGGreat grandmother was. LOL

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey JulieAnn!!!

LOL!!! Come on, you know your descendants will think it's cool that their ggggggggrandma wasn't so prim and proper... ;^)

B.G. Christensen said...

The reason I've never succeeded in journaling successfully is that the thought of future people reading the inane melodrama of my innermost thoughts is terrifying. With blogging, on the other hand, I stick to the inane melodrama of my not-quite-so-innermost thoughts. I figure if I'm willing to let people read my thoughts now then I'm okay with them reading them after I'm dead, and vice versa.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mr. Fob!!!

I have the opposite problem: I'm not so terrified of future people reading my innermost thoughts as I am terrified of future people not bothering to read my innermost thoughts because my innermost thoughts are waaaaaaaaay too boring.

But blogging appears to be a good solution in both cases: don't focus on future people, focus on current people!!! It's easier to have a handle on what's up with current people than to worry about what future people are going to think.

Robert said...

There's a great scene in one of the Woody Allen movies (can't remember which one) where he argues with his dad about death, and says something like, "Aren't you afraid of death?" His dad says, from the bathroom (and I'm paraphrasing), "What's to be afraid of? After you die, you're either conscious, or you're not. If you're conscious, there's nothing to worry about, and if you're not, you won't be around to know." I think it might be Hannah and her sisters, after he thinks he might have had a tumor, and can't stop thinking about death. Or maybe it's one of the other 20 movies where he obsesses about death. Anyway, I think there's only one answer to this problem, which, as you've said, is what you already do: immerse yourself in living. It's a cliche, but what else is there? Mental health is the avoidance of despair, even if that sometimes means sweeping some things under the rug.

Robert said...

Oh, and nice post, as usual. Your writing always seems to have a refreshing honesty and immediacy.

Cyn Bagley said...

Ummm Death... isn't that a skeleton in a long cape? Actually, the time it really scared me was when I was in the hospital bed, knowing that I was dying. That was true terror.

So I learned that if I want to even leave a legacy, I don't have any time to wait... I need to do it now. Oh yea, and no future generations for me... no children.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Robert!!!

That's a funny scene!!! Rationally, I agree it makes sense not to worry about it for just that reason, but in practice it's hard not to worry about it.

Hey Cynthia!!!

I wasn't necessarily thinking only of one's own descendants -- you can have a legacy that affects other people's kids...

Anonymous said...

Very interesting points as always. I don't know where I fall on the 'legacy' spectrum, but I was thinking that a legacy doesn't always have to be a personal one. I am thinking of collective or group legacies.. like a cathedral building. I have no idea about the individuals that laboured to achieve their vision, but I admire the result of their collective endeavours. Likewise when I visited some neolithic caves in the Bordeaux area last summer.. there were some cave paintings that really touched me, and I felt a kind of kinship with the long defunct artists who had created that beautiful imagery.


Anonymous said...

I've always really liked that song. And - I've always admired Virginia Woolf's work. I'm sure there are people who appreciate her work and didn't appreciate "The Hours", but I really liked _The Hours_ as well.

I'm not sure there are any easy answers to these questions. On the other hand, there are easy answers (i.e., the ones put forth by traditional mormonism or organized religion) - but they are very difficult for some of us to accept logically and rationally.

For me personally, I'm glad to just be thinking about it - trying to be a good person, trying to make the world a better place in my own way for my kids and for kids in general. If someone can take something from my blog now or in the future, that's great. If not, that's okay too - at least it was fun for me while it lasted!

JohnR said...

I began to comment, but it turned into a full post...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rudi!!!

I like your idea of a collective legacy. I should take my kids and go see those cave paintings sometime -- it's crazy that I haven't done it yet.

Hey Aerin!!!

That's a good attitude. That's the attitude I'm shooting for, if only I weren't so neurotic... ;-)

Hey JohnR!!!

I love it when that happens!!! :D

Anonymous said...

I'm always thinking about this same kind of stuff chanson. Especially after having my lights go out for a few days last year. I think four days of complete unconsciousness and absolutely zero memory of anything that happened during that time, gave me a hint of what death is all about.

So, like you, I say to myself, "It doesn't matter what happens when I die because I won't even know I'm dead." But here's the thing that pisses me off: I really like being alive. I'm having a ball and loving the extraordinary richness that I've created for myself. In that regard, death seems like such a waste. (Who can I complain to???)

In the meantime I write about my life because I don't know how to not write about my life. It's a bridge between me and so many interesting people that I've become completely addicted to the process. It's the gift that gives so much back to me.

And in addition to that I keep thinking that if someday my grandkids want to know a little bit more about their grandpa then they're going to have access to a lot of material that'll give them a pretty good idea of just what it was that floated my boat and blew wind into my sails.

I write for me, I write for my friends and I write for my progeny. I don't think I'll know what from what when I'm dead so my only concern at this point is what kind of good is coming from writing about myself now. I get so much payback right here and now that I guess it doesn't matter if anybody ever reads a word after I'm gone.

And yet I still like that idea of having something for my grandkids to read that might help them understand themselves and their heritage a little better. I have absolutely nothing from any of my grandparents. I would have enjoyed having something...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Tom!!!

You and I are really on the same page here! Like you, I don't want to die because I want to keep living, and I write about my life because, well, it's just something I do.

I agree it's nice to leave writings for your grandkids. I'm sure they'll appreciate them and probably feel like they know you through the things you've said. I just mean I'm trying not to spend too much time dwelling on what things will be like after I'm dead... ;^)