Being towards Death

When I was a kid, there was a phase where I was extremely afraid of, I kid you not, sleeping. I am not sure how common this is among children, but for me it is a somewhat embarrassing piece of memory. The reasons for my fear of sleeping are a little bit complicated, but one of the major causes is the fear of "not waking up", or sometimes, "not waking up as the same person". To me, it seemed like participating in a Russian roulette game every time I fell asleep: how would I even know whether I, this exact "me", am going to wake up again a few hours later? The loss of consciousness when sleeping seemed to be exactly the same as dying, save for dreams, and the fact that we generally do actually wake up the next morning. For one thing, one could simply just die in a sleep and not even knowing anything. That, for some reason, probably of little rationality, sounded very feasible to the past me, especially after learning about my great-grandma's passing in this exact manner. But beyond that, how would I even know that the person waking up in my body the next morning is the same person as when I fell asleep the night before? It could very well be the case that this consciousness experience that I call "me" is actually different every single day. In that sense, I am only a being who lives for as long as the day lasts, and when I go to bed, that is the end of this current incarnation of "me".

For quite a long time, actually, I had a bit of insomnia for this exact reason. I would lie on my bed, pondering about all of this, and eventually pondering about very generic philosophical topics like life and death, only falling asleep when I cannot keep myself awake anymore. A kid worrying about all of this might seem cute and funny to adults, but I genuinely had a lot of deep thoughts during these sleepless nights. Well, at least they were deep to a kid that I was -- and I am sure they would be somewhat laughable if I said it out loud today. As time went on, the fear of sleeping slowly faded away, but that was not due to some sort of revelation as a result of my pondering. Rather, it was because of me learning how to suppress my inner fear of death -- something I think we all do as we grow up. After all, not sleeping well every single night sounds like a quicker way to die early, in a rational sense. Or shall I say, the practical and rational side of me eventually won against the somewhat emotional, fearful and irrational side of me.

But were those fears so irrational after all? The same thoughts still come back to me sporadically even after my adulthood, despite the fact that I try to suppress them as hard as I could. Of course, I eventually concluded that talking about whether the consciousness that wakes up every day is the same person is meaningless, because there seems to be no physical way to define one specific consciousness without relying solely on memories and experiences. However, this does not really rule out the fear that I, in the sense of a mental experience, would not be the same the next time I wake up. It could very well be the case that there is simply no consistent way of tracking one single stream of conscious experience through time, that my experience in every single unit of Plank time is different from that in the previous one. The illusion of a consistent "me" only exists as a result of the continuous transition from one Plank time slice to the next. The act of sleeping, or anything that involves the loss of consciousness, means the breaking of such an illusion, and thus the breaking of oneself as a mental existence. On the other hand, as we grow older, the chance of actually dying does also increase in a very real way. I could suppress my own fear as hard as I can, yet all of these thoughts still dread me from the deepest part of my mind.

Stepping back for a moment, why do we fear death, or "not waking up as the same person", which is basically the same thing, anyway? It once occurred to me that I did not actually know the reason for me. What does it change for me, if, say, there is not actually a consistent existence of myself? Would I do anything different? If not, what is the point of having this fear to the point that it prevents me from having a good night's sleep? Even if I knew I am going to die in my sleep tonight, what would I be able to do? And what is the difference between dying tomorrow and, say, 50 years later? It seems that to a person, once they cease existing in this world, then nothing would ever matter again, and whatever one did or did not do makes absolutely no difference. Disappearing without pain in one's sleep seems to be the best way of passing under this interpretation. The dread is very real, except that I could not explain where it came from, let alone finding myself a way out.

About one year ago, someone who I had a fair amount of connection with online passed away in her sleep due to something as simple as hypotension. May this year marked the first anniversary of being on the internet without her. For this reason, I and a few friends of her (who are also friends of mine) became a bit emotional around that time this year. A lot of us were talking about how great a person she was, and how much she meant to all of us. I also posted a somewhat emotional article on my second blog remembering her, and my thoughts at that time on the meaning of life. The general idea of what I wrote is that, because we never know whether and when the same sort of things would happen to ourselves, trying to assign a meaning to our lives is ultimately futile. If we define the meaning of life as realizing some sort of dreams or accomplishments, what would we say about her? Would I be cold-hearted enough to say that her life is meaningless because of her early death, or is it not meaningless because she tried to live her best life until the final moments?

While I was writing that article, it struck me that trying to assign a meaning to our lives is also a main reason of my constant dread for death. By that, I do not mean that death itself is not something dreadful -- but the fact that I might live a meaningless life is more dreadful than the fact that all of us will eventually die. Life is fair in the sense that everyone has limited time in this world, but I have always been taught that the meaning of every single person's life is different. It is somehow despisable not to achieve something "meaningful", and we often mourn for people who passed away at a young age for their lost potential of achieving something later in their lives, not for the actual loss of a life.

In the article, I concluded that life does not, ultimately, have any particular meaning. Humans assign meaning to life, just like they assign meaning to everything else. But we should not forget that all of this is just a figment of the human mind -- nature, the universe, or whatever higher being you believe in, does not care even the tiniest bit of what we mere humans think of our lives. Compared to the age of the universe, even the longest-living humans are nothing more than a blip in the never-ending flow of time. If the universe had its own mind, what would it think of our tendency to judge our lives based on what we assign to them as "meaning"? Probably the same way how we see kids, just like me, who worry about life and death -- "cute".

Dreading for death before achieving some particular goal, in this sense, is as meaningless as life itself is. This does not mean, however, that all of us should just do nothing and wait for, or even accelerate our inevitable demise, at least not in my books. Think about it this way -- what do you do after you achieve your goal, if you think that the meaning of your life depends on that goal? I believe most people would not just say that they may as well die the moment they achieve their goals. It is the same case when you do not believe an inherent goal or meaning of life. There are many, many things to experience on this world -- way more than just achieving one or a few goals. Being born on this world is an opportunity, or, if you prefer, a blessing, to experience all that this world has to offer. Because of the lack of an inherent meaning to life, we get to decide what we want to do with our own lives. This of course including the decision to achieve something beneficial for the entire race of humanity -- but there are so much more. From this point of view, obsessing over an arbitrary "meaning of life" and not trying to experience life itself in its fullest form is a waste of a great opportunity.

The YouTube channel Kurzgesagt had a great video on Optimistic Nihilism, which generally matches what I described. It is classified as nihilism due to its rejection of the idea that life has to be inherently meaningful, but optimistic because it does not urge people to give up on life for the reason that makes it nihilistic. The logic goes the exact opposite way -- because life is inherently meaningless, and because how unimportant every single one of us is, it is us who should make the most out of our own short existence. There is no need to worry too much about whether I will wake up the same tomorrow, because it does not make a difference -- whether I live for one day, or 100 years, what I will do is exactly the same. As one of my friends hinted, extrapolating from the same topic: all that matters are the experiences and memories we collect along the way.

We will all eventually die. Is that dreadful? Of course, because what lies ahead is unknown. But before that moment eventually comes, we have all the opportunity to define our very own lives. Make friends, try new things, create art, do what you love, experience everything you can with your limited time. At the very least, when our final moments come, when our lives flash before our eyes, we could then smile and say, "that was a good life".

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

More from Peter Cai
All posts