At 48 I’ve reached (or passed) the age where I know I’m going to die. No way around it. Now I have to decide exactly what is the point of my life, given that it’s finite.
I don’t know anything when I’m asleep, and realistically I think death is going to be like that, but with no wake up to put the missing time into context. That’s hard to fathom. Neil DeGrass Tyson makes the point that my body will simply become something else, disintegrating to form grass, earth, air, which is quite a nice thought, but it doesn’t really answer some fundamental questions like, “What’s the point of doing anything with my life if I’m just going die and be insensate forever?”
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually less important what happens to me when I die than what happens to everyone else. By that I mean, what will other people experience when I die? More specifically, what will their experiences of me be at that point?
When someone I love dies, they live on in my mind. I can even have a conversation with them, though I may be imagining their part of it. It’s not the same thing as two live people talking, but it’s also not insignificant or imaginary either.
I make up that conversation from all that I have learned about that person during our lives together. That conversation impacts my choices, my moods, my other relationships. In this way, it’s as real as any live interaction.
Even if we don’t actually “talk” in my head, I am still influenced by everyone that’s ever come in contact with me. I am currently the product of my biological self plus all the interactions I’ve ever had. In this way, I suppose you could say we are all becoming one another as we live.
How I spend my life, what I write and perform, how I interact with people, will live on after I am gone. It will have as much impact on the world as anything I do while I am alive. I have a certain amount of power and responsibility for those future interactions now, even if I won’t be around to see the results.
If I’m gone, should I care about the legacy I leave behind? I don’t know. Do I care about the legacy other people left behind for me?
I do. I appreciate Shakespeare, Brahms, Tolkein for the comfort they provide me. I’m pissed about Charlie Parker’s heroin addiction and how it ended his life, Richard Strauss’ ambivalence towards his Nazi environment, and anyone else whose failures made my life sadder than it could have been.
So it’s true in some sense that ultimately, if I don’t believe in an afterlife, then everything is essentially futile. But only if I believe that the “final result” of something is the most important part, rather than the ongoing process of something. As a teacher, I know process is as important as product.
What if the sum total of all life on this planet at any given moment is like an ever-changing ball, arcing through space? My part is an irreplaceable part of the journey. I may not understand the whole thing, but I remain responsible for my tiny piece of that curve.