Death and the Skeptic

“The world began when I was born
and the world is mine to win.”
—Badger Clark

As much as the anthropocentric arrogance and subjectivity of the above statement contradict obvious facts, it could be said that every mind is a world, that the world begins, to each one of us, at birth and ends upon death. This adage represents an insight into the limited nature of our knowledge as mortals.

When I recently stumbled upon the picture of a much-beloved cousin of mine who died several years back, I was flooded with memories and burst into tears, wishing that the dead could speak again. That they could hug us and give us comfort. Death is the parent of religious fantasies and beliefs of all kinds, which so often contradict each other. As a nonbeliever I have pondered and sought meaning for death, or at least a respite from the pain caused by it, in Buddhist and Epicurean ideas.

As one tale about Siddhartha Buddha goes, there once was a mother whose infant child died and she could not bear the pain. She heard of the miraculous man called Buddha and went to him in the hope that he could resurrect her child. But Buddha’s teaching centered on the acceptance of the impermanence of all things in order to avoid unnecessary suffering. How could he perpetuate the notion of eternal life?

And so Buddha told her to knock on every door in her village until she found a household that did not know death. She began knocking on every door and every time she visited a home, the families would tell her that they were sorry but they did indeed know death: a mother, a son, a brother, or a father had died, and they fondly shared memories of their loved ones with her. As she went from home to home, she realized that death was universal and the negative energy of her suffering was transmuted into empathy and compassion, which translates as shared suffering. Humbled, the woman went back to Buddha and thanked him for his teaching about impermanence.

This realization that it’s not my pain but our pain—that we’re all in the same boat—is where compassion originates, and it’s also why Buddha is a type of humanist icon. He taught that all true virtues could be cultivated simply by contemplating death, pain, and all other human experience with mindfulness.

There is no need for gods or supernatural theories in Buddhism, but locking hands with fellow human beings is essential to the realization of its humanist virtues. Epicurus said that good friends are one of the most important ingredients for happiness. We can suffer through almost anything, as long as we have wholesome associates and friends who walk the path with us and make us stronger. Alone we are usually weak but together we are usually strong.

Epicurus also said:

So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist death is not yet present, and when death is present, we do not exist. Therefore it is relevant neither to the living nor the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist. Most people flee death as the greatest of bad things and sometimes choose it as a relief from the bad things of life. But the wise man neither rejects life nor fears death.

Some critics of Epicurus claim that he doesn’t factor in the complex reaction to the finality of human life, particularly when such strong bonds exist between us. But this, again, is not unique to humanity. Apes, whales, dolphins, and elephants form bonds and the death of loved ones is extremely painful and traumatic. Elephants are known to visit the graves of their family members and observe in what appears to be a solemn state when in the presence of the bones of their ancestors.

This, some may argue, sounds like the beginning of spirituality in another species, and it probably is. At least it hints at the possibility of a sophisticated level of philosophical curiosity among elephants. But it doesn’t provide factual evidence for an afterlife: those are two quite different claims. Loving bonds between family members serve an evolutionary purpose, but they are not in any way evidence for the eternality of our individual minds, as painful as this realization is.

Death is final. This means that time is sacred in the sense that it cannot be recovered.

I respect the maturity with which Buddha preached on the universality of impermanence, which in Buddhist doctrine is considered one of the three marks of existence. Rather than entertain religious fantasies and the persistent belief in the afterlife, Zen Buddhists accept that there is only now. There is so much freedom and insight in this realization.

The simplest and most painful insight that we can take in with a smile is that it’s okay.  Everyone dies. And everyone hurts. Paradoxically, crying and being vulnerable require true courage.

In the end, human life on Earth is the true wonder. We can think and breathe. And we, of all earthlings, have become aware of our presence and our place here after billions of years of evolution. Life, not death, should be our source of awe.