Death II: deal with it!

I’ve made some progress since my post about why I don’t like death.

Every now and then I feel this glimmer of “It’s not such a horrifying thing that I’ll never see what becomes of the human race and that one day (and forever after that) my consciousness will cease to exist. That’s life, and when I’m dead I won’t know the difference.”

I’m always really proud of myself when I think that way, but unfortunately those moments are few and far between. Most of the time it’s more like a constant stream of (whenever I get a free moment) thinking “Now what was it that I’m not supposed to think about since it leaves me paralyzed with dread, yet there is absolutely nothing I can do about it? Oh yeah, death. D’oh!!!”

Maybe that’s why I keep so busy?

I think I’ve pinpointed part of the problem, though. It upsets me to contemplate my “legacy” i.e. how I will be remembered after I’m dead. The Indigo Girls’ song about Virginia Woolf illustrates what I’m talking about:

They published your diary and that’s how I got to know you
key to the room of your own and a mind without end
here’s a young girl on a kind of a telephone line through time
the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend.

One of the main reasons I write is to make a connection with people. So in some ways this stanza represents a beautiful dream — to continue to make new friends through my writings even after I’m no longer there to do it in person. The problem with this dream comes a little later in the song:

if you need to know that you weathered the storm of cruel mortality
a hundred years later I’m sitting here living proof.

See the problem?

As sweet as that sentiment is, Virginia Woolf did not “weather the storm of cruel mortality.” She’s dead. Completely dead. As dead as Charlemagne, as dead as Ozymandias, as dead as some random Mesopotamian peasant whose name has been forgotten for seven thousand years. (Actually maybe even more dead than Ozymandius since he’s a fictional character.)

So the “telephone line through time” is a sad image because in reality it’s a one-way communication. Virgina Woolf cannot meet her new friend or swap confidences with her or go out for tea with her or even know of her existence. It’s almost a pretty picture except that a main protagonist is absent. So the ultimate fantasy happy ending — being loved by future generations — isn’t a happy ending at all.

Again my Mormon formation shows up as a part of who I am today. All of the focus and value placed on family history has made it so that when I write, I think of my audience as “future generations.” That’s the wrong fantasy for an atheist to have. There’s no reason to shoot for the “most influential people of all time” list because even if I were to make it, it’s not as though I’ll be there in heaven signing autographs for people. If I want to make a connection with people through writing, the time is now! (Through a blog, for example…)

I’m not saying one should forget about future generations — far from it. You shouldn’t forget about the needs of future generations any more than you should forget about people in need who are alive right now. But if you’re a humanist, you work to leave the world a better place for their sake, not your own.

That said, if someone is reading my stuff after I’m dead, I’m not going to say “No! Put it down! Right now!!!” (How could I? ;^) )

I don’t have a problem accepting a lot of the limitations of being human (see QZed’s post on that), but I guess I’m still working on accepting the fact that my total experience is limited in time as well as space. Baby steps!!! 😀

Cross-posted here.


C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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5 Responses

  1. Hellmut says:

    There are so many levels where my thoughts cross with yours, Chanson.

    I finally started reading Collapse yesterady, which invokes Shelley’s ballade of Ozymandias. And while I did notice the Indigo Girls, I never paid them attention, which is about to change.

    Did you ever see Jean Paul Sartre’s The Chips Are Down? It is the existentialist depiction of Joseph Smith’s spirit world. If you watch or read it, you will love it and you will use it.

    Sartre actually depicts spirits who are still nicotine addicted, others are gamblers hanging out around the card games, and the conspirators against the tyrant are watching sadly on as the next attempt fails. And in the middle of it are a man and a woman have to pass the test of true love.

  2. chanson says:

    I haven’t read that one, but it sounds fascinating — I’ll have to try to get a copy. It’s in French right? That would be good for me — I haven’t read anything in French lately, so while my conversation skills are doing fine, my reading/writing ability is starting to lag….

  3. Hueffenhardt says:

    I don’t know why, but I have no problem with death at all. The thought of my utter extinction doesn’t bother me. The realization that people will soon forget all about me in a few generations doesn’t sadden me. It is ok with me.

    I don’t know why or how to help others get to that point. I matter locally in space and time in the here and now and that is enough.

  4. C. L. Hanson says:

    Hueffenhardt — you’re lucky. Just from reading what a lot of people have written about this subject, it seems like it’s quite common to be satisfied with the here and now and not worry about future non-existence. Others (like me) seem predisposed to worry about it, and it’s hard to think of a reasonable way to talk them out of it because the fear isn’t really rational…

  5. FFG says:

    The Indigo Girls’ song is sad, but I have always liked it. In fact, I sang it in my head while reading this.

    I have never been scared of death (no more problems), but I can understand why people are. Last year, when we watched my dad and MIL die of cancer, we saw two different perspectives. My dad, being ultra Mormon, wasn’t afraid. My MIL was scared out of her mind. She forced/willed herself to last longer in pain because she didn’t want to face her fears.

    Now, I see that death is so much better than cancer & pain. When you start to hope for it for someone else, you realize your problems (probably not as dire) will be gone the minute you die too.

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