463. Darkening of the light (IX)
Well come now, does not all this dwelling on death—on the event you will never experience—strike you as a little bit morbid? All this business about Buddhists who think about corpses in decay and Christians with their skulls, with their memento mori. I think you might be about to turn into a teenager with a t-shirt that features a skull front-and-centre and who carries The Portable Nietzsche under his arm. “And what are you doing this Christmas, Billy?” says his aunty, sherry in hand. “Thinking about death.” Then the door slams and he stalks up to his room to think dark, serious thoughts. “Billy’s very into death this year,” says his mother, “it’s just a stage you know.” His aunt purses her lips and gives a sarcastic nod, the Christmas tree lights reflect in her eyes.
This idea that you should dwell on death, orientate yourself towards it, may, indeed, seem a little morbid. Yet it is not so; it is not about how sad it will be when all the people you know have gone away—especially the person you know best, yourself. To think about death is really to think about a paradox; for you will never experience this event, not fully, and yet it will happen to you.
There are some people who think, as with two men I met in the pub, that when you die you go to a dark room from which you never leave; and yet, even as a child, I used to bury my head under the pillow and think, “When you are dead it goes black, except it can’t go black because you will not be there to see the blackness.” So the idea that death is blackness is the same as the person who imagines that they will watch their own funeral; it extends our consciousness beyond death to try to imagine our death—except it will not be like that.
What we try to imagine when we imagine death is nothingness, and nothingness is a tricky category. After many centuries in back-and-forth discussion, the scientists decided that there is no nothingness in the universe—even in a vacuum there is something. So from a physical perspective, there is always something—our nothingness is just a useful convention, just as “0” is useful for certain mathematical operations; nothingness is a conceit. Yet, from our perspective, death is nothingness: our consciousness creates our world and after it has been extinguished…nothingness, the world has gone out.
To contemplate our death is to think the unthinkable; it cannot be thought, it slides off our mental plate like a black blancmange—a dark and slippery thought. So we find that this idea is not quite morbid; it is more an exercise to bring us back to the present, to the now—to what we conceal with everyday chatter. It is to be astonished by the remarkable fact that there is something rather than nothing. From the physical, scientific perspective, perhaps it just has to be this way; and yet existence itself surprises us, if we are made aware of it.
The temptation is to then moralise it: “Now you remember how short life is, how we all go into the great mystery and never return—remember to be kind to your brother and never leave anyone with a harsh word.” Alternatively, “Now that you feel more alive—now you feel astonishment at things at all—perhaps you will begin to see that there is a Creator; it is all down to God…time to accept Him…” And yet to act this way—to manipulate with morals or God—destroys the moment, the astonishment. It is another attempt to conceal, just in a different way. There is no need for that, it hides the mystery. All that is required is to sit with the mystery, the curiousness that we find in existence itself; and we are only awakened to this curious condition when we consider the nothingness that awaits us.