“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
-Mark Twain, maybe
I like this quote and I envy its author. It is rational, clear headed, and it makes all kinds of sense. Earlier this year Makagutu had a post asking people about their views on death. I would have loved to have replied with this quote, but that would not have been honest. I did not take part in the conversation as my views are not as sensible as this quote or those from the other commenters. While I do see the wisdom of the quote, fear rarely listens to reason. I have feared death for most of my life. My journey into science and atheism has done very little to help with it. It isn’t just the prospect of dying, it is oblivion. Everything that I am will dissolve, degrade, decompose, and disappear. Eventually this will happen to everything that will ever live. I won’t even exist in memory. While this is sometimes a distressing thought, it isn’t the real problem. What really gets me is the inevitable end of everything and an eternity of nothingness.
The Heat Death of the universe has plagued many of my sleepless nights. The thought of the universe so expanded that there is no energy or matter left to spread out is terrifying. Nothing ever changing, nothing ever warm, just frozen pure entropy encompassing all of existence Forever. I have dealt with a lot of theists who throw about words like ‘eternity’ and ‘forever’ without really thinking about what that means. They talk about true immortality as being a good thing. If you spent half a second actually considering Forever, you would soon realize that an eternity of anything would eventually become hell. But of all the possible hells, the worst must surely be that of everything being stuck as the ultimate barren wasteland of Heat Death.
But wait, some may interject, you won’t be around for that. No one will. It is silly to worry about what some conscious entity might feel about Forever in Heat Death, as Heat Death discounts any possibility of consciousness. I answer that this point is irrelevant. While I won’t be present for the Heat Death, I am present now, and it distresses me now. Imagine a terminal patient told that in two years time their children will have to endure a painful and agonizing death. Telling the parent “Oh, you will be dead when it happens, so it couldn’t possibly bother you,” would not be comforting. Indeed, the news would be all the more traumatizing because you knew you would not be around to do anything about it. The inevitability of it would be unbearable. I thought the same way about Heat Death. Our universe, so vast and diverse that human knowledge barely scratches the surface of what it contains, will be reduced to a state so boring that any hypothetical consciousness that had to endure it would surely go mad in a few short centuries. Not that it would help, as those centuries would quickly pass and that hypothetical consciousness would exist in constant, unrelenting mental anguish. And in that state it would remain. Forever. If I happened to be in a low point of an emotional cycle, thinking about this would keep me awake well into the morning. Nothing helps a depressed mood like sleep deprivation.
So who the hell is Larry? Larry is who I had a very nice chat with the other night. Larry has a pretty special perspective on things and it is refreshing to see things through his lens. Larry has an unfailing ability to cut through superfluous details and get the heart of matters – to see what is really important and ignore all the senseless trivialities that overwhelm most people’s minds. How does he do this? Well, Larry has an advantage over most people that helps him achieve his superior clarity. You see, Larry is a skull. A skull embedded in a cave wall that borders a staircase. Larry’s existence is comprised entirely of watching people go up those stairs or just sitting there in the cold dark silence.
Before I lose too many of you, I feel I ought to explain. No, I still don’t believe you can see ghosts, or any other such nonsense. But for the halloween season I do work at a haunted house in downtown Edmonton. It’s called Deadmonton and it runs out of the old Paramount Theatre on Jasper Ave and 102 St. The organizers have created an intricate maze of horror scenarios with amazing attention to detail. Scenes, props, lighting, sounds, and even smells have all been expertly crafted to produce a truly terrifying experience. If you like horror, love to scream, and can appreciate having the stuffing scared out of you, I highly recommend you check it out. The haunt runs tonight (it is Halloween after all) and next weekend as well. There are twists, turns, shadows, screams, and horrors abound. Oh, and there’s the monsters.
Make no mistake, the environments created are plenty terrifying on their own. Each room has been painstakingly crafted down to the tiniest detail to ensure the highest possible fear response in those who dare walk through. But what will truly horrify you and potentially short circuit your bladder control are the monsters that live within.
Hidden in the darkest corners throughout the Haunt are monsters of all sorts. There are hideous freaks who have lurked from all corners of the Horror universe. Whatever sets your spine tingling and teeth chattering, you will find it at Deadmonton. I am proud to say that I am one of those monsters and that I am responsible for at least two people peeing their pant in fear. Collectively we have scared over 130 people so much that they could not finish their tour of the haunt. We have a ‘Chicken Out’ board in the lobby to keep track.
Anyway, one of the rooms I haunt in has me positioned across from Larry. In between groups of
victims visitors, Larry and I would chat about things. Of course the conversation is entirely in my head, but playing it out in my mental theatre helps pass the time and keep me in a haunting mood. I’m there for many hours a night, so even if we only have the spaces between groups of prey guests to talk, we cover a lot of ground. He’s helped me work through a few things that were bothering me. For not having any ears, Larry is an excellent listener. Though, I’d warn agains having a staring contest with him. If not having any eyelids isn’t cheating, it should be. Larry disagrees, of course. But back to the matter at hand, an issue with which Larry is intimately familiar: death.
Early in the evening I was thinking of my grandfather who had recently passed. Although I was through the toughest part of the mourning process, I was still having occasional flashes of immense sadness. I was telling Larry about this in quite a bit of detail, a process that I will spare you, as his response is what’s important. He was confused as to why I should be sad about my grandfather’s death. When I started to explain, he cut me off. He told me that everything that lives will die. Did I expect my grandfather to be an exception? No. Death is just what happens to all living things. Being sad about death is like being sad that gravity pulls you to Earth. There’s just no point in it.
While what he was saying made sense, Larry could tell that I wasn’t quite convinced, so he continued. Given that death is inevitable, what is important is the experiences you were able to have together. They were always going to be limited, thus quantity must be less important than quality. You are a better person for having your grandfather in your life? Of course I am. Then that’s all that matters. I realize that, but that doesn’t mean it still didn’t hurt. If Larry had been alive, I’m sure he would have been exasperated. Fortunately though, Larry had the patience of the dead. Back again to gravity, at times it will hurt when you fall to the ground, but that doesn’t make it reasonable to be sad about gravity. You just take the steps and the time necessary to recover from your pain. The same applies here.
The relief hit me in two waves. The fist was Larry’s permission for me to feel pain, the second was immediately after when I realized he hadn’t actually given me permission, I just had it all along. There are many people who try to console the mourning by trying to convince them to focus only on the happy memories of their lost loved one. It’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t work because it merely acknowledges the pain, but then tries to bury it in happy thoughts. Larry helped me see that the pain is to be respected and treated, just like any other injury. It turns out I felt very bad about feeling pain. I know this because the pain was still there, but I still felt much better. Larry, however, was not done.
Remember that Minute Physics video you watched recently? Yeah. That was pretty cool.
At heat death time stops. Yes, it looks that way. So? So, that oblivion thing that you keep worring about isn’t even possible. As time will come to an end, there cannot be a Forever.
There cannot be a Forever.
I kinda sat there stunned as the implications washed over me. Larry continued. Thinking about Forever is like asking what happened before time. It’s more than wrong, more than impossible. Forever is nonsense. You cannot go North from the North Pole and time cannot survive Heat Death. All those nights worrying about oblivion and you may as well have been wondering how to draw a square circle. There is nothing to worry about. Time will share oblivion with you.
What a sublimely comforting thought. Thanks Larry. No problem. Oh, there’s another group coming.
Ok. I’m ready.