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Some context before I start: I'm not religious. I don't believe in any kind of conceptualisation of God as something that results in existence after death. After death there is nothing.
This post isn't intended as an attempt to convince anyone of a different belief system, but rather to attempt to capture and clarify my own thoughts. I'll fail. For those who share enough of an overlap of the same belief system as I, perhaps it'll be helpful, interesting, or worst-case, it'll simply reveal how I'm attempting to deal with a core existential conflict.
A well-known Mark once said:
"I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it." — Mark Twain
I'm not sure how deeply Twain intended that comment to be considered, but it has always held a lot of power for me. The truth I find in that comment, however it was intended, deeply connects to my thoughts and fears about existence; thoughts I've had since long before I knew his name or had heard about the Stoics.
As a kid I remember having a strange, abstract dream. It recurred for years. I haven't had it for several years now, but I can recall it clearly.
It's dark and I'm watching a white fenced play area. Inside are not children but balls of different colours. They're bouncing around in different directions randomly. Within the fenced area is also a tall chimney with a ladder that goes up to the top. I watch as the coloured balls randomly bounce around with no particular aim or pattern, but I'm waiting for something. Every now and again a ball climbs the ladder and jumps into the chimney at the top. Nothing happens. At some point in the dream however, a black ball starts the climb. The closer it gets to the top, the more fear I feel. Eventually it reaches the top, jumps in, and in that moment I wake up in absolute fear. The time is always 04:23.
My theory is that I haven't had this nightmare in the last 5-6 years because my sleep schedule has been much more chaotic, but I don't know if it's due to another reason.
What I'm woken up by is a manifestation of the fear of no longer being. The reason I'm sure of that is because other dreams in which I die give me the same feeling. I sometimes also have the extremely intrusive thought about the shortness of life just as I'm falling to sleep, and the exact same wave of fear overcomes me in that moment. The only way I can console myself to sleep is by committing to take a big step in my life, or acknowledge something important that I must do — essentially to minimise some other much smaller fear that had until then felt bigger.
Why am I telling you this?
Since being a child I've had different versions of this core realisation that one day, sooner or later, but surely, I'll no longer be. The fact I can both imagine that without having any comforting answer to why, or any further question or fear resolved, is a core part of my existence. It's impossible for me to forget about it for long periods.
I linked all of this to a final, abject conclusion. If one day soon I'll be no more, then what I create, what I do, who I love, every action and choice I make, none of it matters. I soon won't be here, and that fact cannot be changed. Struggling with that, I shifted my focus to how I could resolve at least the abjectness. For a while I considered that considering my "legacy" was a way to achieve that.
Through how I choose to live my life, I can enrich others' and leave behind things that live beyond me. I can leave a positive legacy — something that helps others, including others. That was a comforting thought initially, but taken a few steps further, it's still entirely unresolvable in my mind.
The people who outlive me, who may experience contributions or memories of me, themselves will die, as will the people that outlive them. We know nothing of the souls who existed 150,000 years ago. Even if I try to imagine that we could in the future, eventually also the planet will die, as will the sun, and whatever exists deeper. If indeed "deeper" is even the right model at that point. Legacy, like everything else, doesn't matter.
I envy people who can conceptualise their existence as part of something bigger in which they'll continue to exist in some form. For me I can't comprehend that, and so I can't believe it. The fear of my own short existence is permanent.
We're existing in an infinitely small moment, which due to its insignificance, and a complete lack of any other reason or explanation, leaves me with the same conclusion: in the end none of this matters. There's only extinction and nothingness for everyone.
"Brief is man's life and small the nook of the Earth where he lives; brief, too, is the longest posthumous fame, buoyed only by a succession of poor human beings who will very soon die and who know little of themselves, much less of someone who died long ago." — Marcus Aurelius
For me it's terrifying, and almost exclusively because I find so much beauty in the ability to write these words, have these thoughts and feelings, smell the coffee-scented air in the coffee shop where I sit fruitlessly writing this, knowing that I have no control over the final outcomes, and that I won't be part of this for very long.
And yet I'm currently alive. I can feel, I can love, and I can express these feelings. I can ponder the impossible search for a deeper understanding of my own existence. I can do all this knowing that a black ball will eventually begin to climb the ladder, and at the top, jump into the chimney. This time I won't wake up.
I've considered that my refusal not to confront these questions and fears could have taken (and still could take) me down a dark path, most likely to an extreme result. I'm glad I don't find myself there, or anywhere near there, and the fact I don't gives me some meaning.
What is that? Because whatever it is, it's the only thing that keeps me away from the abject conclusions above. Can there be meaning in the fact that nothing matters?
The very fact I have no control, and that I am so deeply aware of it, gives me something like comfort. Comfort is not the right word, but at least peace. The fear of returning to my previous state, as Twain said, is what gives me pause to consider that there is meaning at least in the moment. While eventually there will be no further moments, there are moments right now; each one rare, impossibly so, and yet here I am, me, experiencing another.
I've also considered the irony in spending my impossibly unlikely and short consciousness pondering death, but I highly doubt for me there's any meaning to be found without doing so. Stoicism, other philosophies, as well as religion and other belief systems tend to frame things with regards to death because it provides all meaning.
While I can't change any of this, and I can't shake off the conclusion that nothing matters, I do at least have control over my own feelings, my consciousness, and my desires. With that control I can choose to find love and appreciation using all of the senses I possess in a moment, even though in the end none of it will remain.
The only thing that really exists, that really matters, is this moment. It will die, as will my memories and feelings about it, and everyone else's. There's no way to change that. I'm not in charge — nature is, and its will is powerful. But the will of nature is also to give me moments, as well as the free will and consciousness to experience them how I want.
The only meaning I can extract comes from that, and it's deep… deeper that I actually have additional words for. This is just a very thin, abstract attempt to capture feelings and conclusions that are so tied up in helplessness and simultaneous joy that there's no possible way I can fully capture them in words.
"It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live." — Marcus Aurelius
It's far too easy to be passive and experience life as the default, but it's clear to me that it works the other way around.
There's only one final state, in which nothing will matter. I came from that state and I'll return to it, as will you. While it's terrifying to conclude that nothing matters, it's not insignificant that I have escaped the default state for a short time. The only thing I have outside of that is my consciousness and now, and how I choose to experience them together.
I'm writing these words, I'm having these thoughts, I'm experiencing life whether I like it or not. Consciousness wasn't my choice, but on loan from death I possess it right now. I don't know why, but does it not make sense to enjoy it, even if I believe it to be for nothing in the end?
Those who know me well have had some version of this conversation with me in person. Both here in writing, as well as during pleasant evenings with good company and good wine, I've never been able to express these feelings well enough to have completely extracted my thoughts, fears, conflicts, emotions and conclusions into words.
The nature that both created and awaits us is too complex, and I don't believe we can understand it to any useful degree. These words are just a reflection of my own human limits.
My conclusion is that nothing matters in the end. That's terrifying. I know some people find that freeing, but I do not. The end is, however, not yet here. Life, the gift of nature, is short, impossibly rare, and I must use it well simply because it's the only thing I can do.
I won't see you on the other side. There is no other side. But I'll see you now, and that needs to count because it's all we have and it's impossibly rare and short.
I'll let Aurelius sign off.
"Remember also that each man lives only the present moment: The rest of the time is either spent and gone, or is quite unknown." — Marcus Aurelius