I had other plans for this week’s post.
In it, I inflated my ego once again and skewered a point of view in favor of another one. The comments, I thought to myself, are going to be off-the-chain.
Life happens. As I write this, life is happening all too quickly.
While I’m not a stranger to illness or death, most of my familiarity with the subject came when I was younger and not fully able to wrap my head around the subject.
Thankfully—graciously, maybe—I’m not sure humans are supposed to be able to wrap their head around the concept of death.
I don’t pretend to understand death. I’m not sure I want to understand it.
I do want to sink chin-deep in this foreign concept and mull it over in fear. I’m going to lean heavily on minds much better than mine, and I’m going to try to make sense of it all without actually getting to “understand” it.
I do have a post planned out where I explore the importance of uncertainty, the ability to accept that I’m wrong or that I don’t know the answer to a question. Death, however, seems so big and looming that we forget to accept it.
Whether I am religious or not, death feels like a being that takes what it wants when it wants it, and we have no power over it.
A podcast I’m quite fond of has a running gaffe, born out of a decidedly Darwinian debate on life, that you really can’t tell when a strawberry has died.
Biologically, defining when life begins is extremely difficult and (stupidly) politically dangerous. Basically, it’s easier to say once something is already alive—and even that can be tricky.
It’s understood in biology that even potentially immortal organisms, single celled and otherwise, statistically will die at some point due to the circumstances around it: predators, toxins and the like. Cells carry in them organelles called lysosomes that have the capability to turn into “self-destruct” buttons if things are to go terribly wrong—death, it seems, is inevitable.
Putting that aside, death can also be tricky to explain. Is death inevitable? When is a strawberry dead?
Is it when it is plucked? Is it when decomposing starts? Is it when there is no more growth? Is a seed’s germination a continuation of its life?
In humans, the definition has long been that death starts at the point of no return from adverse effects on the body. However, advances in medicine and technology have pushed that threshold back and continues to do so. Where before a stopped heart meant no more life, a human can be medically alive and well with their heart stopped in an operating theater.
Yeah yeah. I hear you sitting at the back, with a knavish grin. Death starts the day we’re born.
That’s not the point.
After some debate, the scientists in the podcast panel settled on a rather unscientific answer for our fruit.
“When is a strawberry dead?” asked the presenter.
“Only if you kill it,” was the answer.
Tear out this sentence, read it once, and put it away for a bit: Death only happens when we decide it does.
According to physics, time—and the space we inhabit—is relative, both part of the same four-dimensional quilt. Stretching one stretches the other.
It gets even more confusing at the smallest level. In quantum physics, even objects aren’t really what we think they are. The more certain we try to be of where an object is or where it is going the more it’s going to break down, and cause and effect are alarmingly absent.
However, our brains constantly gather patterns and stimuli from our senses: take a minute to think about everything you’re aware of right now.
You’re breathing in and out. You can hear and feel the A/C unit, cars, voices, there’s a seat under you and you’re staring at a screen that’s resting on something. What do you smell? What do you feel? Is it light, dark?
Somehow, all of this becomes a reality. Your reality. You not only process your environment but your brain also forms opinions (opinions!) out of it.
Let’s dwell on this for a second: According to physics, past, present, and future aren’t absolutes. We live in a never-ending line of present moments—fleetingly instant.
Our brains create the illusion of a flow of time. From, say, Abraham Lincoln’s point of view, my “now” is in his future.
Think of time as the grooves on a record. Past and future, therefore, are relative to the observer. So, that “present” moment of Lincoln’s death exists in some point in time. The needle is our brains processing our present moment. In our space-time record disc, behind us from our point of view, Lincoln is alive in his groove.
Proposal: If time is a set of points we call “present” that exist in the space-time continuum, then perceived moments—including death—are an illusion.
Let’s explore what this means.
Since linear time doesn’t exist, then there cannot be an “after death,” except the moment of death at that present moment. It’s impossible for Lincoln, to continue the metaphor, to have gone anywhere if the moment of death is just that—a moment. Death, then, doesn’t exist.
Einstein fell back on this when his close friend Michele Besso passed away. “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me,” he wrote. “That means nothing.” Imagine that! He continues, “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
I want to go back to the point I made earlier: it’s easier to define life, and only once we are already alive. Life is happening too quickly to focus on death. If in fact time works the way physics tells us it does, then obsessing over what death is or what happens after is the wrong way to go.
Let’s instead focus on life, now. I must be clear: letting go of death also means letting go of our obsession with eternal life.
I think the reason why sources like the Bible spend so little time defining death and the afterlife and a lot of time teaching us to love each other is because death and eternity (should you believe in heaven or a legacy) should never be our obsession. Our community should be our obsession.
Maybe death isn’t an insurmountable barrier. Death, maybe, is just . . . a breath, a moment in time . . .