You don’t know me. To most of you, my disappearance will make no difference. That is something we have in common. My disappearance will make no difference to me either: once my consciousness is extinguished I will be as unaware of my existence as you are.
Although this is in some sense a chronicle of a death foretold, it is not an attempt to pull at heartstrings. I view my terminal condition as an accident happening in slow motion, but too fast. Having thought about death most of my life, I am now in a position where I must come to terms with mortality in a hurry.
I recently wrote an article called ‘Atheist In A Foxhole’ here (Issue 105), explaining my location in a cancerburrow and the Humanist struggle to find meaning in the face of such adversity. It might as well have been called ‘Until Death’, underscoring the Humanist’s emphasis on life. This life.
Despite my certainty that there is no afterlife I don’t fear death itself, as I don’t find the prospect of unconsciousness to be terrifying. I’ve also maintained that the Humanist’s consolation in the face of death is upheld by leaving memories behind through the lives we touch. But this doesn’t quite cover the range of emotions that a committed atheist feels about dying. I don’t fear being dead, but I still don’t want to die. Here there might be a modicum of agreement with the faithful: as the saying goes, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die”; or more humorously, “The good news is that there is baseball in heaven, the bad news is that you’re pitching on Thursday.”
The most outspoken atheist to recently succumb to cancer was Christopher Hitchens. Likewise he did not fear death, but he did draw an analogy to the unease that we nevertheless experience about our mortality. It’s not that the party is going to end, it’s that we must leave and the party will go on without us. (For good measure he also added that the religious cannot leave the party, it never ends, and it’s compulsory to have a good time.) What unsettles us is the sorrow of having to depart from everyone we hold dear while the music plays on.
Yet what if the music were to stop for everyone? What if the world stood at the brink of annihilation? Would we be comforted by knowing that everyone is leaving with us? Although I would never wish it, and as monstrous as it sounds, it would undeniably be more consoling to have a shared experience of an imminent end than going it alone. But in the happy absence of such an apocalypse, we must leave unaccompanied, and in the process briefly turn the party into a wake.
Although my passing will have few far-reaching consequences, the loss of Hitchens is felt by many who did not know him personally, including myself. I recall a New Year’s Eve party in Stockholm a few years ago when, dressed to the teeth as Judy Garland, quite woozy at three in the morning, my mascara was ruined by a flood of tears precipitated by a casual reminder that Hitchens had passed away. I could at that point not remember when last I had cried, so the flood of emotions was startling. There I was, a sobbing, immaculately dressed transvestite. We who stay behind are affected more than the departed.
Death is said to be a part of one’s life, but surely that is not the case if life has not preceded it. Robert Nozick said that “How unwilling someone is to die should depend, I think, upon what he has left undone, and also upon his capacity to do things.” In this sense a premature or untimely death is considered all the more tragic. Although death need not be feared, the prospect of not fully having lived life is heart-wrenching. We need time to realise our aspirations in order to leave a footprint behind. Whether or not we go “gentle into that good night” depends much on that footprint. Our life party will end in tears if we do not feel it is time to go.
While an early departure has its obvious setbacks, receiving prior notification of it contains a blessing that many do not get. Millions of people each year die suddenly. They get no chance to say goodbye. With cancer you are usually forewarned, and you can fight it for a while. This buys time to put your house in order and say farewell to those you love. We all know that our time is finite, but we tend to live as if it isn’t. As hard as it is to confront, terminal disease allows the afflicted to live life in full realization of its finitude. There is no ‘later’ for which to put off those difficult gestures we otherwise never get around to doing.
The world without me will be much the same as it was, except for the few that know me. These lives we touch in different ways are our lasting impression. But this consolation conceals a paradox. We want those we love to remember us, and if we are really honest, we want them to be saddened by our absence. How can we want to be the cause of sadness for our loved ones?
This paradox is only apparent. We all feel this way, but not because we are egotistical self-centred maniacs. We don’t want our loved ones to be unhappy per se. What we want is for the feeling of love to be mutual, and sadness is the unavoidable consequence of missing someone who has touched our lives deeply. One might say that the proof of the loving is in the dying. Nothing can be more comforting for the living than a religious promise that our loved one has not really died, but is now in a ‘better place’ where we will eventually be reunited. Yet if we don’t accept this idea, we must face our loss head on. And an important part of the consolation for those who are departing is that we know that those who stay behind will through their love grieve and remember us.
Nevertheless, the consolation brought by the lives we touch is a double-edged sword. And the other edge is directly related to the fact that we have to leave. The most pertinent example is the children we bring into this world. It can be incredibly consoling to know that ‘a part of us’ lives on – that in a certain sense the world is not entirely without us. But it is also devastating to realize that we will not get to see how the lives we touch unfold. We leave a footprint, but won’t bear witness to the footsteps that follow.
The world without us is only made different by what we leave behind. We are only guests at this party, but should aim to leave it better for us having been there.
Adapted from https://philosophynow.org/issues/108/The_Party_Without_Me