Suicide, Fear of Death, and Fear of the Afterlife

By Jin-yeong Yi

Cinema in Australia

“It will generally be found that, as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life. But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance; they stand like a sentinel at the gate leading out of this world. Perhaps there is no man alive who would not have already put an end to his life, if this end had been of a purely negative character, a sudden stoppage of existence.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Suicide”

What if there is an afterlife, and suicide is punished as a grave sin? This possibility doesn’t worry me all that much. Besides the fact that the probability of an afterlife is minuscule, if not minimal, reward and punishment seem rather meaningless when one considers the fact that we are ultimately not responsible for what we do. We are not responsible for what we do for the reason that we do what we do because of what we are, and we are ultimately not responsible for what we are.

“What is it restrains people from suicide, do you think?” I asked.

He looked at me absent-mindedly, as though trying to remember what we were talking about.

“I… I don’t know much yet…. Two prejudices restrain them, two things; only two, one very little, the other very big.”

“What is the little thing?”

“Pain.”

“Pain? Can that be of importance at such a moment?”

“Of the greatest. There are two sorts: those who kill themselves either from great sorrow or from spite, or being mad, or no matter what… they do it suddenly. They think little about the pain, but kill themselves suddenly. But some do it from reason—they think a great deal.”

“Why, are there people who do it from reason?”

“Very many. If it were not for superstition there would be more, very many, all.”

“What, all?”

He did not answer.

“But aren’t there means of dying without pain?”

“Imagine”—he stopped before me—”imagine a stone as big as a great house; it hangs and you are under it; if it falls on you, on your head, will it hurt you?”

“A stone as big as a house? Of course it would be fearful.”

“I speak not of the fear. Will it hurt?”

“A stone as big as a mountain, weighing millions of tons? Of course it wouldn’t hurt.”

“But really stand there and while it hangs you will fear very much that it will hurt. The most learned man, the greatest doctor, all, all will be very much frightened. Every one will know that it won’t hurt, and every one will be afraid that it will hurt.”

“Well, and the second cause, the big one?”

“The other world!”

“You mean punishment?”

“That’s no matter. The other world; only the other world.”[1]

—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons 

There’s also another reason why I see little reason to be concerned with the possibility of punishment, and that is the fact that one searches in vain for a “Moral Law” that exists as an intrinsic part of the fabric of reality. If a “Moral Law” does exist, it is so nebulous that it seems most unlikely that one could ascertain whether suicide is “right” or “wrong” in the first place. For all we know, suicides are rewarded and non-suicides are punished in the next life. As preposterous as it may sound to most, it goes to illustrate just how ambiguous and vague this hypothetical “Law” really is.

To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet 

But what of death itself? For some, like the late Peter Steele, the thought of “going nowhere” after dying is too much to bear. For these people, I have a simple thought experiment. Think back to last night, when you were lying in bed in a state of dreamless sleep. Try to recall the emotions you were experiencing during that time. Did you feel any anxiety? Any fear? Regret? Sorrow? I doubt it. Chances are, you recall nothing. You weren’t unconscious in that your body was ready to respond to external stimuli, but you were unconscious in that the movie screen in your mind was blank. You were not conscious of being unconscious, and you surely weren’t conscious of how you felt about being unconscious. In the same way, if we assume that death is absolute and permanent unconsciousness, the fear of it is as unfounded as the fear of sleep would be.

Either way, suicide only hastens what is all but completely inevitable, not bring about something that would otherwise never be. If death is nothing but a cessation of consciousness, there is nothing to fear, and if death is inevitable, there is little point in fearing it in any case. In the immortal words of Epicurus:

“Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.”[2]

Infester – Chamber of Reunion

Room of reunion… Join with the departed,
Souls trapped in a timeless sanctuary of darkness.
… Witness the secret places which shall not be perceived by man.
Talisman strung in remembrance of the dead,
Resurrect visions kept in capsules of existence.
Perception enhanced by smoke and hypnosis,
Subconscious prayers for entreaty.
… Come to call, reappear in form!
Transcending through the boundaries of ancient knowledge.
… Notice the transient beings
Which thrive on your fear,
Their meager existence I have already experienced
… Moving closer to the core,
I engulf in luminescence,
Acquired from this cerulean consumption,
The resting place of emptiness…
Where blackness robs the spirit
Chamber of reunion
… I may not return to this chamber.
From the blood, we are born of sadness…
But thy celestial spirits are breathed into me,
So I may never know.

Notes

[1] Chapter III: The Sins of Others

[2] Letter to Menoeceus

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Beyond Heaven and Hell: A Brief Analysis of Meister Eckhart’s 87th Sermon

By Jin-yeong Yi

Drop of water in water

“By meditating on our birth, we can also see that there appears to be a definite time at which our existence began. Before our birth this ‘I’ did not exist. But we realize that cannot be. There can never be a stage in which we did not exist, and this ‘I’ is only a temporary reflection of our infinite existence.
Similarly, by meditating on our death, we can see that it is impossible that there will come a time when when we do not exist. It is only this individual consciousness that will cease to exist, our true ‘I,’ the subject of our consciousness, must always continue to exist.”

—P. J. Mazumdar, The Circle of Fire

“It is child’s talk that a man dies and goes to heaven. We never come nor go. We are where we are. All the souls that have been, are, and will be, are on one geometrical point.”

—Swami Vivekananda

If you’re an atheist, you probably don’t believe in life after death. Medieval Christian theologian Meister Eckhart may convince you otherwise. Here is an excerpt from his 87th sermon:

“Now pay earnest attention to this! I have often said, and eminent authorities say it too, that a man should be so free of all things and all works, both inward and outward, that he may be a proper abode for God where God can work. Now we shall say something else. If it is the case that a man is free of all creatures, of God and of self, and if it is still the case that God finds a place in him to work, then we declare that as long as this is in that man, he is not poor with the strictest poverty…  So we say that a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has any place for God to work in. To preserve a place is to preserve distinction. Therefore I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures. For in that essence of God in which God is above being and distinction, there I was myself and knew myself so as to make this man. Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal. Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die. According to my unborn mode I have eternally been, am now and shall eternally remain. That which I am by virtue of birth must die and perish, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time. In my birth all things were born, and I was the cause of myself and all things: and if I had so willed it, I would not have been, and all things would not have been. If I were not, God would not be either. I am the cause of God’s being God: if I were not, then God would not be God. But you do not need to know this.

A great master says that his breaking-through is nobler than his emanation, and this is true. When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: ‘There is a God’; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature. But in my breaking-through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works, and of God himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain for evermore. There I shall receive an imprint that will raise me above all the angels. By this imprint I shall gain such wealth that I shall not be content with God inasmuch as he is God, or with all His divine works: for this breaking-through guarantees to me that I and God are one. Then I am what I was, then I neither wax nor wane, for then I am an unmoved cause that moves all things. Here, God finds no place in man, for man by his poverty wins for himself what he has eternally been and shall eternally remain. Here, God is one with the spirit, and that is the strictest poverty one can find.

If anyone cannot understand this sermon, he need not worry. For so long as a man is not equal to this truth, he cannot understand my words, for this is a naked truth which has come direct from the heart of God.”

This text is intrinsically about nothing. I don’t know what Eckhart, who was a highly controversial figure during his time, really intended for it to mean. The following is what it means to me personally:

So we say that a man should be so poor that he neither is nor has any place for God to work in. To preserve a place is to preserve distinction.”

“God” = the universe as a whole. In the same way that a solar prominence is not separate from the Sun, we are fundamentally not distinct from God: we are God; we only need to realize this fact.

“Therefore, I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures.”

Notice that Eckhart uses the word “origin” rather than “creator” in referring to God.

“Therefore I am my own cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal.”

“Essence” = energy. Energy is eternal because, according to the first law of thermodynamics, it cannot be created nor destroyed. “Becoming” = a particular, dynamic configuration of matter, which arises out of energy.

“Therefore I am unborn, and according to my unborn mode I can never die.”

If the universe is eternal, and we are an inextricable part of the universe, then we are eternal.

“That which I am by virtue of birth must die and perish, for it is mortal, and so must perish with time.”

“That which I am by virtue of birth” = a particular, transient collocation of matter.

“When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: “There is a God”; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature.”

Once again, notice Eckhart’s unusual wording. He does not say “When I was created by God,” let alone “created by God ex nihilo.”

“But in my breaking-through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works, and of God himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain for evermore.”

To recognize that the constituent parts we are made of are eternal is to recognize that we have always existed and always will.

“Here, God is one with the spirit, and that is the strictest poverty one can find.”

“Strictest poverty” = absolute purity without any accoutrements, the essence without the externals. In other words, complete identification with what is eternal: the universe, sans personification.

If this is how the real afterlife looks like, well, I suppose one could do a lot worse…

“Oh, if only you knew yourselves! You are souls; you are Gods. If ever I feel like blaspheming, it; is when I call you man.”

—Swami Vivekananda

Some Thoughts About Life After Life

By Jin-yeong Yi

Illustration from the Egyptian Book of the Dead

“Please don’t think that when you die / You’ll spend eternity up high / When what you really ought to know / Is just how far your life will go”

—Atheist, “Piece of Time”

I desire an afterlife not so much because I fear death (I probably fear pain more than I fear extinction), but because I love life and would like more of it, especially if it can be lived with more freedom and more beauty.

Yesterday I finished reading Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon who contracted an extremely rare and extremely deadly form of bacterial meningitis and lived to tell the tale, after spending a week in a coma—and, supposedly, paradise.

Prior to reading the book, I’d read part of Dr. Sam Harris’s critique of it[1], and had thought that it would be an interesting exercise to compare my observations with his. I think Dr. Harris and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks make persuasive points, but since I’m not a neuroscientist, I think it will take me a long time—perhaps the rest of my life—to draw anything resembling a comprehensive conclusion regarding the nature of NDEs, and the dualism-monism debate as a whole. So for now I shall limit myself to imaginative speculation.

While I’m not convinced that Dr. Alexander’s account constitutes “proof of Heaven,” I found it to be remarkably well-written, engaging, instructive, and even awe-inspiring. Even if his experience took place entirely within his mind, it was nonetheless an amazing and unforgettable experience that would be entirely natural to cherish forever.

In his own critique of the book[2], Mark Martin wraps up by writing:

“What I can say is that Dr. Alexander’s heaven offers no comfort to me. A posthumous future where ‘You have nothing to fear’ and ‘There is nothing you can do wrong’ sounds like infinite boredom — inhuman and alienating in its contentment.”

After quoting a poem by Vladimir Nabokov, Mr. Martin continues:

“‘Proof of Heaven’ sullies the subtle, exquisite, personal and easily forgotten possessions of this sublunary world. Dr. Alexander’s pink fluffy clouds and divine orgasmatrons are a cosmic vulgarity. Thinking so, why would I commit the giant act of condescension required to imagine this vision good enough for others?”

What I got out of Mr. Martin’s critique was mainly further confirmation of the simple notion that we humans will never agree on what is good, what is beautiful, or what is desirable, whether in life or in death. That’s why I think the closest thing to a utopia we could have on Earth is a personal virtual reality simulation for each and every individual.

“I don’t think Hell exists,” says retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong. “I happen to believe in life after death, but I don’t think it’s got a thing to do with reward and punishment.”[3]

It wouldn’t make much sense to me if it did. The notion that this life is some kind of moral test is quite preposterous to me, given the fact that 1) so many people are prevented from taking this “test” in the first place and 2) individuals cannot ultimately be held responsible for their actions, since they did not determine the genetic and environmental factors that account for much of their tendencies and choices from the cradle to the grave.

If there is a divine Being controlling this universe from the “outside” (wherever that is), I would imagine that He/She/It is more concerned with imparting experience rather than conducting some kind of cosmic eugenics program (i.e., separating the wheat from the chaff). It would certainly explain the scientific data better.

Remember the short-lived TV series Dead Like Me? I rather like the idea that there is a custom-made afterlife for each individual, specially tailored to his or her deepest desires and dreams that were not realized during life, and I can’t help but hope that that is precisely what we will find when it is time to depart this world.

Notes

[1] “Science on the Brink of Death” by Sam Harris 

[2] “Dr. Eben Alexander’s so-called afterlife” by Mark Martin

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF6I5VSZVqc

Dreams of an Endless Summer Day

By Jin-yeong Yi

“That Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

—Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”

“[T]he human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions’. Only egotism exists.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

“Death is the law of the universe. In the days when Plato worked out the first rational arguments for immortality, as distinct from mere religious tradition, the claim was not so exorbitant. The stars themselves, the Greeks thought, were immortal. They were small, undying fires set in the firmament. Plants and animals died, of course, but these stars made men familiar with things which never died.

Now we know that the stars—not three thousand of them, as the Greeks thought, but two billion—are born and grow and die just like dogs, except that their life is immeasurably longer. There is a time when each is a shapeless cloud of stardust. There will be a time when the most brilliant star in the heavens will fade from the eyes of whatever mortals there may then be. They are made of the same material as our bodies: of gas and earth and metal. They fall under the great cosmic law that things which come together shall in the end go asunder—shall die.”

—Joseph McCabe, “The Myth of Immortality”

“We are masters of life and death, we rationalists. It has been a fine adventure, this half century of conscious existence, with all its labor and trouble and injustice. Huxley once sincerely replied to Kingsley, who sympathized with him on the death of a child, that they were proud and happy to have had the child just those few years with them. That is the spirit. An hour of sunlight is better than none. To have been born and lived and died is, for the man who knows how to live, a privilege and an opportunity that he might never had had. You have had the joy of seeing your children slowly rise through the phases of blossoming and ripening around you. You have known the fragrance of wine and flowers, the delights of art, the fascination of science, the joy of battle in a good cause…. How can any man have the effrontery to grumble that the feast is not eternal?”

—Joseph McCabe, “The Myth of Immortality”

“On the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

—The Bible, Genesis 3:19 (King James Version)

“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”

—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

“But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

—The Bible, 2 Peter 3:8 (King James Version)

All of us were born terminally ill. Even before we came into existence, we were sentenced to death, and our sentence hangs over our heads every moment of our lives.

I don’t think I’m afraid of death. I think Mark Twain had a point when he said, “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” I’m comforted by the fact that, when my time comes, I will be in good company, that is, every single person who came before me.

And yet, as I watch the world crumbling around me in slow motion, I can’t help but feel a profound sense of regret at the thought that nothing, including all that I cherish and see as noble and beautiful, will endure. This feeling is especially strong when I look upon a person who embodies qualities I admire. “If only this sublime creature could live forever!” I sigh ruefully. And the feeling is hardly less strong when I look upon that glorious process of discovery, learning, and growth called life. Existence is painful, but grand. I lament the transience of these things even as I remind myself that when I die, I probably won’t be around to give a damn.

I’ll be frank. I hope that there is an eternal afterlife. To me the notion looks dubious at best and absurd at worst in the light of modern biology, cosmology, and neuroscience, but I am crossing my fingers and wishing upon my lucky stars that when I close my eyes for what is supposed to be the last time I will open them again to find that the book of my life has a sequel. Yes, even though it looks like the odds are stacked sky-high against me.

Some of my fellow skeptics question not only the existence of an eternal afterlife, but its desirability as well. They argue that eternal life would be boring, without shape or form, or without value. “Life is precious precisely because it’s finite,” they reason. It is difficult to argue with that. I can only say that the fact that I exist, that I have consciousness, that I have a pattern and process that I can call my own in the first place, is precious to me simply for being what it is because it might not have been.

As for eternal life being “boring,” well, I think that would depend on each individual, as such adjectives describe our subjective experiences of things rather than the things themselves. And why would eternity have to be boring? Because it’s too long? What if the nature of time in the afterlife is completely different from what we have here? What if the afterlife is a state in which we forget about time entirely?

Of course, while I’m alive, I cannot go beyond mere speculation. The answer will come only when I die, if it ever does. For all I know, that may take many years to happen. But for the time being, allow me to indulge in some fantasy:

It may be that the present world is a lot like a vast, gigantic train station, and that the present life is essentially nothing more than a period during which we humans wait for our trains to arrive at the platform. Generally, each of us gets his or her own private train, because it is rare for people to depart this world at the exact same time. But depart we will. It is only a matter of when. Some people depart after dozens of moons. Others depart before they even get a chance to see what the train station looks like. Either way, everyone is on their way out.

This waiting period is, in the grand context of things, trivially brief, but for many of us humans it is still long enough to build civilizations, wage wars, open businesses, pursue careers, accumulate learning, create works of art, nurture romances, raise families, cultivate friendships, and fret about matters big and small. In the end, however, all of this is simply our way of occupying ourselves while we wait for our respective trains, which will take each of us to someplace better. It wouldn’t do to become too attached to a place that we are supposed to eventually leave anyway. All of our troubles in this train station, no matter how overwhelming, are transient, and will have no lasting ramifications. No matter what happens to us, we won’t miss our train. Viewing things in this light, we can set aside at least some of our fear and our bitterness and think of this brief period as a chance to learn and prepare for the great journey ahead.

Believing that something is true without evidence may be irrational, but hoping that it is true, no matter how improbable it is, is not. And, for my dream of an endless summer day of discovery, freedom, wonder, and joy; I have as much hope as I have doubt.