I know this is all we get, but I can’t accept it.
December 2, 2008 5:18 PM   Subscribe

I know that we all die and that there’s absolutely no way around that. I know and accept that one day I will die as well, and I’m not afraid of dying, per se. What I am afraid of—terrified of really—is no longer existing, no longer being conscious of everything that’s happening in this great wide world, no longer being sentient, I guess. What can I do?

Long explanation, as all anonymous questions tend to have…

I am not religious or spiritual. I do not believe in God or a god or a higher being. I do not believe that there is an afterlife or that there is a heaven and hell, nor do I believe that we will be reunited with our loved ones in the hereafter. But I really, really, really wish I believed in any of that, especially the whole hereafter/loved ones thing. I am nearly paralyzed by the thought that once I die, that’s it: there is no more awareness of what is going on, there is no more learning, there is no more thinking or problem-solving or interaction. You just…don’t exist anymore. That’s what I cannot wrap my head around.

Many people believe that you have a soul (what I guess I’m referring to as consciousness or existence) and that when you die, it’s just your body that stops, but your soul continues on, either going to heaven or being reincarnated or something else entirely. If I believed in that I’d be laying awake at night worrying about other things instead of trying to figure out what it feels like to not exist.

If I knew for certain that my mind/soul/existence would carry on after this body died, I think I’d be okay. But I don’t know that (I suppose no one knows for sure, but so many people believe) and that really stresses me out. Since I don’t know, and I don’t believe, I’m left with death = nothingness: no body, no mind, no floating awareness of the universe. I just don’t know how to accept that or rationalize it or be okay with that.

Do other people worry about this (I know people worry about dying, but do they worry about this weird aspect of it that I’m talking about?)? How do they deal with it? What can I do to try to deal with it and accept it and wrap my head around it? Is it possible for me to become some kind of believer, such that I’ll start believing there’s an after-existence?

I’ve figured out what “the meaning of life” is, at least for me, so that isn’t a question about that. I’m not asking how to find religion. I know that a ton of people are going to throw out “therapy” as a one word answer, but really, how is a therapist going to convince me some part of me will continue to exist after I die? Or that, really, it’ll be okay? (I generally dislike all the shrinks I’ve had and none of them have ever “got” me and I can’t deal with any more platitudes about this particular topic.)

I’ve been worried about this off and on since I was a kid, but I worry about it more and more lately, and every time I think about it I break down and cry and it consumes me. Other people don’t seem to have this problem, either they believe in something after, or they don’t and they accept it. I just…haven’t reached that point yet, and I don’t know if I can.

Throwaway email: soulpatch@gawab.com

Anonymous because I don’t want my mefi friends to know how fucked up I am.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (87 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
I eventually came around to two things: First, the alternative to dying is never dying, and that's even worse. I don't think I could stand the tedium of eternal life.

Second, I am part of something larger. I have contributed to the collective legacy of the human race, and it will continue on after I am gone. So at least on some level, my death isn't the end of everything that I was.
posted by Class Goat at 5:26 PM on December 2, 2008 [7 favorites]

anonymous: I have this problem, too. I suspect that many people do, except that we don't talk about it.

This feeling usually hits me as I'm trying to fall asleep, and it wakes me instantly. I am filled with dread. (I had this problem even as a child, but back them my religion was of some comfort). To get over the immediate feelings, I try to distract myself with conversation, or with an engrossing book.

Honestly, I think you need to deal with the fact that this idea seems to be crippling to you, rather than convince yourself that it's "not a big deal" or whatever. Perhaps talking to a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (rather than just a random one) could be helpful - they often deal with people who have negative thoughts that are crippling in their day-to-day life.
posted by muddgirl at 5:27 PM on December 2, 2008

You've already experienced non-existence once, before you were born. How much worse could it be the second time around?
posted by lore at 5:29 PM on December 2, 2008 [56 favorites]

you're so not alone. a lot of artists have the same feeling--shakespeare, in particular, wrote often about how his work was his epitaph, etc etc. but also keats, wordsworth--there are others, i just don't have the recall at the moment.

as for what to do about it...there are a lot of options. if it's paralyzing and interfering with your life, therapy's not a bad bet.

if it's not interfering, then use it as motivation to do something good that will outlast you--volunteer, build something, make art, make math, teach, raise a child, raise puppies, wherever your talents lie.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:30 PM on December 2, 2008

First things first......you're not "fucked up."
posted by goalyeehah at 5:31 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

>> You just…don’t exist anymore. That’s what I cannot wrap my head around.

>> but do they worry about this weird aspect of it that I’m talking about?

Absolutely! This still fills me with dread sometimes.


What Panic Attacks by David Burns [Are you *really* thinking about this clearly? Work through it systematically on your own. Terrible title, great book.]

http://www.interactivebuddha.com/Mastering%20Adobe%20Version.pdf [Consider *real* meditation. Not necessarily this (though it's decent), but not new age crap. Deep penetrating insight may be an eventual game-changer. Meditation has helped me a lot.]
posted by zeek321 at 5:32 PM on December 2, 2008

Is it possible for me to become some kind of believer, such that I’ll start believing there’s an after-existence?


I’m not asking how to find religion.

Are you sure? N.B. - I'm not trying to be snarky here.
posted by jquinby at 5:36 PM on December 2, 2008

Have friends and children so that your life will touch people's lives. You know how people have pictures of dead relatives on the wall and tell stories about grandpa or grandpa's grandpa? Live your life the best you can and you'll be remembered.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:37 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I sympathize, but in a different way...

I am not afraid of death, but I am terrified of the after, I dont want there to be an after. I just want it be done, over, dead, buh-bye. The problem is that I do believe, I believe there is something after, though I don't believe in heaven/hell per say...though I was raised religious. The only reason I think there is an after is because of some of the ghostly/haunting kind of experiences I had as a child, that I cant quite chalk up to a kids over-active imagination.

I am really into the natural burial movement, I just want to be un-embalmed, wrapped in a sheet or recycled paper pod, tossed in a whole and covered over, no marker, well...perhaps a tree, an apple tree. In my minds eye I picture the grave digger wiping his dirty hands on his pants, lighting a smoke, tamping me down with his foot and then just walking off. Afterwards, if people want to remember me, they can come pick my apples, Jenny apples...make Jenny Pie, Jenny Jam, Jenny Baked Apple Crisp...
posted by Jenny is Crafty at 5:40 PM on December 2, 2008 [14 favorites]

You're not the only one. Other people don't seem to have this problem because it's not considered ok to break down in public and wail about the nausea of the abyss.

I distract myself with crossword puzzles, or as my mom taught me when I was a little kid with the same thoughts- multiply powers of 2 in my head until I can't keep track of all the digits anymore, at least when this comes at bedtime.

I've also discovered exercise really helps (gets me focused on the body as it is now, not the conciousness as it might cease to be in the future). You could try meditation, some people find solace there. Or perhaps keeping your hands busy is more important for you. Artistic production is another option. Communicating with other people can work too.

I don't think logic-ing your way around this will work, however. We're very good at rationalization, and if you really want to be dismal, your mind will find a way around any logical block you construct. The only real solution is to break the thought pattern as soon as you notice it, and replace it with something else.
posted by nat at 5:41 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I sometimes have similar feelings; I'm not scared of non-sentience, but I don't like the thought of it.

That said, I try not to worry about it. I figure when I die it will just be like going into a permanent sleep - you won't be conscious or aware of your position so you won't be able to worry about it...

On the other hand, I don't discount the possibility of some consciousness living on. When you die your body breaks down into its base elements. These will, in time, be incorporated into other forms of life. Even if the Earth doesn't last forever the molecules that make up your body will eventually be forged into new planets and cosmic phenomena. So some part of you will always be aware of and in touch with the universe.

You should worry less and focus on living a life you enjoy. If you focus on enjoying your time on the earth to the utmost you won't have time to worry about what happens after.
posted by fearthehat at 5:41 PM on December 2, 2008

2nd zeek's suggestion of meditation.
posted by gnutron at 5:43 PM on December 2, 2008

Every person ever has this. If you weren't afraid of not existing, you'd play in traffic or shoot yourself just to see. People go through their entire lives not knowing what death is--it's the one true unknown, along with what's in sausage. The lucky ones come to terms with their own mortality and accept death as a part of life. Rationally, it makes no sense to waste time worrying about it: If you wink out like Roy Batty on his fourth birthday, you don't have to worry about it. If you are reincarnated without memory of your previous life, you don't have to worry about it. If you are transported to an afterlife of your choosing, great! You get to eat and hump and all that good stuff forever. You still don't have to worry about it.

The only scenario where you have anything to worry about at all is if there's some sort of bearded busy body keeping track of all the times you had impure thoughts and the only afterlife you're getting is some version of eternal damnation.
posted by Kafkaesque at 5:45 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

The most simple thing you can do to cheat death is to stay in the moment. Do not pass go nor collect the two hundred dollars. As long as you are in the present, the true gift of this life, you won't be worried about dying. Breathe deeply. Go out and see the crescent moon tonight. Eat some baba ganoush. Do not hold on to life, just enjoy the gift.
posted by Xurando at 5:46 PM on December 2, 2008 [11 favorites]

I also have had this exact same thinking and panic from time to time since age 14 when it really hit me that some day I will die, and this very body I am in will be burried. And then what? It can be really crippling.

A few years ago I finally had to just come to peace with the thought that no matter how many different ways I thought about it, no matter what people told me, or how many times my brain went in the same circular thought pattern, I would NEVER be able to satisfactorily answer the question "And then what?". So I changed my thought to, well, I guess I'll know when I get there... or at least never have to worry about it again.

I also used lores answer to sooth this question in me. I didn't exist before I was born... and it seemed fine then! :)

Inevitably, the way I feel about Death is the same as how I feel about infinity... how can something go on forever?? It doesn't make sense. But how could something NOT go on forever... how could outer space end? Then what?

This are the questions for the ages. I just assume that the answers are beyond the capacity of my little mind to understand.

In the mean time, while in my heart I often feel/believe/fear that when you die there is truly nothing... I allow myself to still find comfort in the idea that my passed loved ones could be looking down on me, are a part of something greater lead by a supreme being, and are helping me to guide my way in the world. And one day I might get to do the same. It sounds nice, and I have no less evidence that it could be true than the idea of nothingness.
posted by veronicacorningstone at 5:50 PM on December 2, 2008

I feel the same way as you, anonymous. The notion of inevitable death is a bleak existential monument on my mental landscape, and it has never and may never stop bothering me profoundly when I really let myself dwell on it.

I think about it less in the last few years than I did when I first started contemplating my own mortality as a kid, and I wish I had something more concrete to tell you but I think I largely just got sick of thinking about it and started, well, refusing to.

Thinking about it made me sad or upset; knowing that and having done that dance enough times, I got good at recognizing when I was starting to think about it and I would just, somehow or another, change the subject. Literally attack some other line of thought. Burst into song. Throw on a coat and go for a walk. Call a friend. Blast some high-energy music. Anything that might jar your train of thought and get you on a different track is worth a shot.

If something specifically is priming you to think about this, try to find a way to avoid that stimulus, or at least avoid having it catch you by surprise. Contemplating it sometimes is unavoidable and probably healthy, but you can try to avoid marrying up that line of thinking with moments of unrelated emotional vulnerability at least. No reason not to do your best to only contemplate death on your own terms.
posted by cortex at 5:56 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

One thing that has helped me is to think as follows: Consider that there are right now, over 6 billion people in the world. In the future, this number is only likely to rise. Now, how likely is it that there will be someone like you out there in the future? Not exactly you, of course, since they'll have different experiences, but that they'd think about things the same way, have the same kinds of ideals, the same personality? Pretty likely, I think.

I just call those people in the future "me." I'm happy to know they'll be out there, watching what happens. Even though I've never met these "me"s, I think of them as my team, and know that if we did meet, they'd be my friends. And you know what, I bet some of them have thought through this too, and think of me the same way. In some ways, that makes us friends already.

Thinking about things that way, it gives me a connection to the future, and it makes it okay that I won't be there. Someone will be feeling the same wonder for me.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 5:59 PM on December 2, 2008 [14 favorites]

You're definitely not the only one. When I was a kid I would stay awake at night thinking about it (and also be worried that the doors weren't locked, I was a really paranoid child). Lately I've been too busy with living to worry about not living, but I think one way to get over that fear is to try and leave behind a legacy, or at least strongly influence someone else's life.
posted by god particle at 6:05 PM on December 2, 2008

Seconding what lore said: you know what it's like to not exist. You've already spent over 13 billion years not existing. It wasn't a bad time, was it?
posted by mr_roboto at 6:09 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Read Eckhardt. As well as any buddhist texts you can get your hands on. Thich Nhat Hanh is a fav of mine.
posted by scarello at 6:15 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think your last thought is the realization that you were never really there to begin with.
posted by ian1977 at 6:17 PM on December 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

In my younger years, I had much lower self esteem and so I believed that everything that happened in the world revolved around me in some way. My death and non-existence was unthinkable because the universe would stop; nothing would ever happen without me.

I now have a much more realistic view of my position in the world, and in realizing how meaningless my contributions are to the majestic ebb and flow of the universe I am now much more sanguine about my eventual absence. Paradoxically I am also much happier with my achievements -- humans are so so tiny, but we accomplish so much for our size.

More practically, you wrote:
If I believed in [souls] I’d be laying awake at night worrying about other things...

This is a very telling statement for me. Even if a legendary philosopher pops into this thread with a world changing treatise on the blessings of non-existence, you'll just move on to worrying about the next thing.

If I were in your shoes, I would cut the whole process short and concentrate on your habit of worrying. It's generally a cognitive issue, it can be dealt with through meditation or possibly therapy. Basically it's a habit you've got to change or you will spend the rest of your life sick with worry about *something*.
posted by tkolar at 6:21 PM on December 2, 2008

I agree that if you find the thoughts about this debilitating, perhaps the best response is to just find ways to stop thinking about it; many good suggestions for dealing with the issue above....That's how I deal most successfully with the same feelings.

If logic or reason helps you in any way, I find that thinking about "conservation of energy" can be helpful - the idea that the energy you are always was, and will always be in one form or another. In this sense your current form is one of an infinite series of unique expressions of the eternal energies of our universe.

It also might help to think philosophically about who the "I" is that will or will not be preserved.
posted by extrabox at 6:36 PM on December 2, 2008

I'm a agnostic/athiest (which of those two depends on what day it is), and I get freaked out by this, as well. I don't know if I believe in an afterlife, or after-existence, or whatever, but I often entertain the notion of existence after death. But with this theory, no God/religion needed!

If the universe contains multiple dimensions, and indeed our theoretical physicists say that it does, then isn't it possible that our consciousness is, at this moment, simultaneously on many other planes of existence? After all, our consciousness is on three (X,Y,Z) dimensions and probably four (time), so why not several more? And is it further possible that our mind, and memories and personality will remain in those dimensions –somehow-- even when our 4D body dies in this dimension. Therefore, perhaps we continue on, in a very different place.

I don't count on this being true, but it's nice little bit of security (bullshit?) I tell myself to ward off the horror of non-existence without resorting to soul-crushing religion for the answer. At the very least this theory is in the real of possibility.
posted by zardoz at 6:37 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

You're not alone. This paralyses me more often than I'm comfortable admitting (but here I am, nonetheless!) and I've not yet found a solution for the whole gnarled ball of string it represents. I don't want to be gone. I don't want to miss the rest of the story. I don't want to just be a side character in the overall story of not just humanity, but of this planet. I would be perfectly happy with an eternal existence. But that's more than unlikely, so I'm working on adapting to the idea of making my time as part of the story as worthwhile for myself and the world as possible.

I have found the following to be helpful:

Invest in the world: Do something that contributes to the world at large, to the common good, to a group that isn't getting the breaks other groups are getting. This investment makes the idea of being gone a bit easier to bear. And it ties your thread into the existence of an entity outside of yourself, so you can watch that thread continue into the future.

See how others have comforted themselves, without science: Read origin stories for every culture you can find them for, taking in the many forms of primitive and hopeful reasoning which ended up building or supporting frameworks for beliefs which continue to this day in various permutations. They show how those people dealt with the idea of impermanence in the face of all they felt should be accomplished and discovered and I've found that comforting.

Consider your connection to humanity: For me, it helps to validate the persistence of the human experience, the importance of each soul, the value of everyone who bothers to make an effort or even just record the efforts of others. Just thinking about how your time on the planet is tied to the string connecting us to the first cell of the being that would eventually become a human can be a reassuring bond making leaving it all behind a bit less scary.

Ponder energy: Energy doesn't just stop and disappear. It becomes, moves, transforms, resonates...it goes on. You are mobilised by energy. It's a tantalising string of consideration.

Record & predict: Write out what you've learned, hoped, wished, and accomplished. It can be hard reading during an existential crisis depending upon what you've been through, but it can give you a superlative portrait of your time on Earth and perhaps make the concept of passing from it less daunting, highlighting your impact and how you think the world will evolve after you're gone. When you get to the part where you record what you hope will happen in the world after your passing, keep in mind you could be the next Nostradamus. We're still talking about him 500 years later, so that seems like a great legacy.

I have no idea if any of that will be useful for you, but it'll at least distract you for a little while as you give the ones you've not tried yet a chance.

Also: I'm always down for exploring the "crossroads of existence" topics, if anyone ever feels like having a smaller conversation about it.
posted by batmonkey at 6:38 PM on December 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

You've already experienced non-existence once, before you were born. How much worse could it be the second time around?

Sounds logical, doesn't it? But deep, emotional, gut-level fears rarely respond to logic.

I've been toying around for a while with the idea that consciousness is far more dependent on stories, on narrative, than is generally realized. Even to the extent that, without narrative, there is no consciousness. And we like stories to have a beginning and an end.

And there's the reason why the non-existence of pre-birth is less troubling than the non-existence of death. We can't personally experience stories, or parts of stories, from our pre-birth, but we can read history books, or talk to people who were there to get the beginning of stories we didn't personally experience.

We can vicariously experience the beginning of stories that we weren't around for. But that's how death is different than pre-birth—there's no way to find out then end of stories that end after one dies. There's even the possibility that one will not know the end of one's own story, if one dies in one's sleep, or very very suddenly.

And that's a large part of why the non-existence of death bothers me a lot more than the non-existence of pre-birth. The human race could make unimaginable advances in the next thousand years (or they could commit unimaginable atrocities, or both) and I won't be around for most of it. I wasn't around for the advances of the nineteenth century, either, but at least I can read about those. I'll never know, even second-hand, about the advances of the twenty-second.

I don't have a good way to deal with it (I just try not to think about it too much, which isn't that great of a solution), but I can at least tell you that you're not the only one who is bothered by such things, and perhaps explain why "you didn't exist before you were born, either" isn't really that comforting.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:39 PM on December 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

I always remind myself that I don't miss a thing from the year before I was born. I don't fret over the fact that all kinds of interesting things happened before I was born into this world. I don't feel cheated at all and I'm sure the next stage will be no different.

If you are a reader, I highly recommend a book from existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalmom called Staring At The Sun: Overcoming The Terror of Death. I can't tell you how (get ready for this) -- comforting -- this book is. I know that must sound odd, but it's a must-read for anybody experiencing distress similar to yours. (Especially for those who are non-believers in a God.) Staring At The Sun propelled me to reading most all of Irvin Yalom's books including his wonderful novels, When Nietzsche Wept, The Schopenhauer Cure, Lying On The Couch and several volumes of short stories that all revolve around therapy sessions. It's all absolutely fascinating. The fear of non-existence is always at the core. I have told many people if they read only one book from 2008, make it Staring At The Sun.

Good Luck! To us all...I guess.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 6:40 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I struggled with this for a long time myself. I'm an atheist myself and it just seemed so terrible to me that one day I would no longer exist, that things would happen in this world that I'm no longer a part of, and I would know nothing of it. To me, that's a very depressing thing. I've come around to the view that the not-existing is really not going to be that bad -- because you don't exist. There is no point worrying about a time when you won't exist because it's not as though you have feelings at that point anyway.
What I am scared of even now is that point when I know I don't have very much longer to live. I'm young now and I can't conceive of that being anything but a horrible time, with the realization dawning that I must leave this lovely world. But who knows what might happen, I might contract a terrible disease that makes dying a relief, I might have lived a wonderful, fulfilled life but still be happy to end my time on this world.
I'm come to the conclusion that all you can really do is enjoy this world while you're in it, have a good time and treat others well. You say you've found your life's meaning -- good for you. Just suck all the joy out of life as you can, but don't worry about no longer living -- you won't notice, I promise.
posted by peacheater at 6:48 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, so, that seems to be the crux of why many people seem to take up religion - for the mental safety-blanket of an afterlife.

(I took up the idea of religion, minus an afterlife... *shrug*).

So, how I consider it -
if you consider time as just another dimension, then our lives extend like a 4 dimensional noodle in space/time. And will and always exist, in those particular dimensions of space/time.

So, this instant? Eternal. This instant? Also eternal.
In my better moments, I strive to make each moment as awesome, meaningful and beautiful as possible. In my darkest moments, I wouldn't ever commit suicide, as I wouldn't want the eternal last-point-I-was-ever-me, to be me killing myself.

Really, afterlives don't make any sense - you either grow and change, in which case, over long enough, you'd essentially change everything about you that ever made you, you (in which case, what's the difference between your consciousness continuing to become someone else, and any other human? Or anything?), or you don't change (which is just that same, frozen-in-amber, space-time noodle).

My genes are probably already carried in thousands, and millions of other human beings. Each person I interact with, each moment I have, will have it's own quantum-butterfly like effect on everything else.

Still, my other plan is to become the first person to live to a thousand.
But I'm willing to take 3rd place if necessary. ;D
posted by Elysum at 6:48 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

My favorite way to deal with this concern is to realize that if you live long enough, there is the very real possibility that in our lifetimes they may find a way to extend your life or download your conscientiousness into a computer. Then I think about how it would happened to me, how they'd probably find out I was the perfect call center interpersonal communication software, and I'd end up answering phone calls from disgruntled customers for all eternity. I'd probably be unlucky enough to be so good that they'd clone hundreds, if not thousands of me to handle angry customer calls before the Right to a Single Conscientiousness bill that prevented duplicating personalities for profit.

Then I think maybe I'm just fine with the idea of not existing.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:50 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

You could use this as a jumping off point to start applying a tradition such as Buddhism (and of course there are others) as a way of directly investigating the actual nature of your situation. This would not at all be about layering a story about reincarnation on top of the beliefs you already have--which would indeed be useless. But Buddhism isn't really about adopting any particular belief system or other, but more about investigating (among other things), what exactly is this "I" that's afraid to go away? Is it really an accurate depiction of the situation in the first place?

I think we're in a certain kind of gap in our culture right now where many of the old religious views are being thrown out based on being unscientific and we don't seem to know where to begin to approach big questions like this (other than just to say something like, get busy and don't think about it). What we haven't quite managed to do yet, but are starting to, is to reintroduce some of the wisdom of the contemplative traditions into our culture in a way that's not based on dogma or mythology. These traditions are scientific in their own way: they're based on the premise that if you do a certain kind of investigation, you'll find something quite remarkable about what you actually are.

Of course, from the point of view of the self asking the question, it's completely normal and expected for it to be terrifying and unresolvable. But what can be seen is, that self is not the complete picture of what you actually are. It's just a particular identity that you're picking up and using. If you start to watch you can see how arbitrary and ephemeral these identities are. There's something more fundamental about your nature than this. If that's taken as another concept to debate about, etc., it will be pretty useless, but if it can become something directly seen and experienced it could be more useful than anything else.
posted by dixie flatline at 6:53 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been collecting AskMe threads on this for years.


I've been terrified of dying since I was a kid, but I'm an unbelievable 29 now and it's slowly getting easier to wrap my head around. Slowly.
posted by gerryblog at 6:53 PM on December 2, 2008 [30 favorites]

But you do live on!

My deceased family and friends live on in my memory. Losing loved ones early in life helped me come to terms with non-existence as I realised they, and eventually I, will survive in the consciousness of those who remember us. Becoming worthy of warm memories - that's my goal.

You say you are worried about there being no more learning, there is no more thinking or problem-solving or interaction. You just…don’t exist anymore.. I think part of what you are talking about is related to the ego. The ego can't tolerate non-existence (That’s what I cannot wrap my head around. - see?) Buddhist and other texts that reflect on the ego are helpful in replacing this fear with the wonder that you ever lived and had consciousness in the first place.

Enjoy life! Be a wonderful, full-living, courageous, and generous person and you will live on for many many decades beyond your death in something much more infinite than this physical plane - in the hearts, minds and emotions of others.
posted by Kerasia at 6:56 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

If I believed in that I’d be laying awake at night worrying about other things instead of trying to figure out what it feels like to not exist.

There's a logic error in your thinking. If you're very lucky, that means you can correct it and move on. But I suspect you're just having trouble explaining (to yourself as well as to us) what you're really afraid of, so you're groping for words and saying something nonsensical by mistake.

Taking you literally: it's silly to worry about what it FEELS like to not exist, because non-existent things don't have feelings. Are you worried about how Bugs Bunny feels? No, because he doesn't exist. What would you say to someone who said, "I feel terrible because I said something mean about Bugs Bunny! I'm so worried I hurt his feelings"? You'd tell that person he was being absurd. You can't hurt Bugs Bunny's feelings. If he had feelings, he would exist in some way. Since he doesn't exist, he has no feelings. Things with no feelings can't be hurt. So as a dead "person," "you" will be impossible to hurt.

It WOULD be horrible to be trapped in some kind of limbo where you were all alone in the dark with no body -- just a mind suffering for eternity. But that would be an afterlife -- a bleak one but an afterlife nonetheless, and you don't believe in an afterlife. As someone else pointed out, you already didn't exist once: before you were born. Do you somehow think that "you" was suffering? Maybe the you in the womb was unhappy, but what about the you ten years before you were born. Did that you miss his friends?

Here are some scary things:

-- Having loved ones die before you and having to LIVE without them.

-- Being really old, LIVING with the thought that you didn't fulfill your potential and don't have enough time to do so.

-- Being ALIVE while slowly dying of some painful disease.

(All these horrible, scary things will be mercifully over when you die!)

But after you are dead, there's no you to worry about. After you dead, you are like Bugs Bunny, Scarlett O'Hara, Captain Kirk and Abraham Lincoln and The Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz." I guarantee you that none of those "people" are suffering.

So step one is to face the reality that non-existence is not scary. It's the opposite of scary, just as it's also the opposite of happy, sad, bored, shy and lazy.

If you're worried that people won't remember you after you're gone; or that they'll say bad things about you or something similar, it's because you're imagining yourself "looking down" on Earth and getting your feelings hurt. But there won't be any you to look down.

So, like I said, either face the fact that there's nothing scary about non-existing, admit that you actually DO have some vague belief in an afterlife, or try to figure out what it is you're REALLY afraid of (being alone when you're old? missing people?).

If you realize that you actually do believe in an afterlife, maybe you can switch your bleak belief to one of the many happier ones. They're just as likely to be true as your version. If you're really worried about something less supernatural (e.g. growing old), that's natural. But if it's crippling you, speak to a professional.
posted by grumblebee at 6:59 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern - why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be?"

-William Hazlitt, On The Fear Of Death
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:25 PM on December 2, 2008

I think the only way to deal with this problem is to accustom yourself to it. A number of ancient Roman tombstones bore the acronym NFFNSNC: "non fui, fui, non sum, non curo" ("I used not to exist, I existed, I don't exist, I'm not worried"). Who knows what the dead thought before they died? But the recurrent inscription suggests that it comforted them, or at least their survivors.

The folk singers Lou and Peter Berryman have a song on your theme, "After Life Goes By," whose refrain goes: "I believe it's over after life goes by/I believe it's over when we die-die-die/Others may be thankful their beliefs are strong/But every night I'm praying that I'm wrong-wrong-wrong!" It may not be comforting but it's a good laugh--not a bad response to insoluble existential problems.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:33 PM on December 2, 2008 [5 favorites]

Pedantfilter: Oops, misquoted the first line of the Berrymans' refrain, which should read, "I believe there's nothing after life goes by."
posted by brianogilvie at 7:34 PM on December 2, 2008

Someone wiser than I said that Neither the sun nor death an be looked at steadily.

I would take this to heart.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:36 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Brennus at 7:38 PM on December 2, 2008

For me, too, my model of how the world works tells me that there is no soul, and when we die we just stop. But for some reason, this doesn't upset me. I can't explain why it upsets you and it doesn't me. But I can tell you how I think about this.

When I was younger, I fretted about Big Questions, and Truth, and other capital-letter concepts like "What Happens When the Universe Ends" and "Why Do I Have to Do My Homework if the Sun Will Die In Ten Billion Years." But it was thoughts along a different line that lead me to a peaceful resolution of such questions.

Our desires, thoughts, needs, concepts--these are all embodied. We are not abstract, theoretical Turing machines clicking away. We're sacks of meat. And we're not equipped to find pure, objective answers to these cosmic questions. It's not what we do, and it's not what we need. We need food, shelter, relationships with other humans, and so on.

Now I don't believe in God, but I do believe that God is a convenient metaphor, so please excuse the following: The reason that asking those brought me anguish is that I was asking questions that would build a God's-eye view of the universe, whereas what I needed, and all I needed, was a human's-eye perspective.

Take the issue of non-existence after death. At no specific present moment will non-existence ever be a problem for you. (Contemplating non-existence is causing you anguish right now, but not non-existence itself.) You will go for a while longer as a human being, happily existing; and then, after that, there will no longer be a you to be bothered by the fact that you no longer exist. What I try to do, given this, is be the best sack of meat I can be, at the present moment. Eat, sleep, work, learn, play, build relationships with others, all that classic human stuff. I leave omniscience and Super Cosmic Truth Knowledge to someone else.

Maybe that's a cop-out. Maybe it's just a rehashed version of the idiomatic, bland, and correct "live in the present." But the twist where our thoughts--our "self", really, such as it is--is embodied in, and a product of, our physical bodies, is what makes this model appealing for me. To put this in practice, here, it's really not the issue of non-existence after death that is a problem for you. It's the fact that when your synapses fire in a particular way that you experience as thoughts about this topic, your unique neurological hardware fires in such a way that you experience panic. Your experience will not be improved by fixating on what happens after death. That isn't the problem, that's the trigger for the problem. The problem is the panic.

I don't know how you can reprogram your brain, but I wish you good luck. Maybe meditation is one approach. Disciplined meditation definitely can produce some amazing "rewiring the brain"-type results. But I'd suggest a different approach. Do something you love and find rewarding a few hours a week. Volunteer, something like that. Good friendships, helping others, feeling useful and important--these work wonders for reducing anxiety in social animals like ourselves. Maybe you'll just wake up one day and find that you don't feel panic when thinking about that great dark abyss in front of you. Because, really, death's not that bad. It's nothing. It's not anything at all.
posted by kprincehouse at 7:46 PM on December 2, 2008 [5 favorites]

A lot of people feel the way you do about this, including me. The only answer I've ever come up with is to *never* stop fighting to survive just one more day. Who knows? Maybe you'll luck out and keep going long enough for medical technology to greatly extend lifespan. Maybe that extended lifespan will be long enough that you'll live to see the uploading of conscious minds into machines, while they're awake.

Maybe the machine running your ConsciousMind 1.0. program - or one of the machine's ten thousand backup servers running in parallel - will last long enough for people to learn how to fabricate whole new universes, including one in which your consciousness is part of the fundamental underpinning ruleset of existence.

Or maybe you don't reach one of those milestones, and everything you are or were or will be is completely obliterated and rendered hollow at the moment of your death. IF this turns out to be the case, though, consider that there are many solid theories of the nature of the universe which posit the existence of an infinite number of universes extremely similar to this one.

Somewhere in one of those, there logically *must* be a collection of molecules of the exact same type and configuration as yours right this instant. Most of these instances of you are going to die - and the one in this universe is probably not an exception. But sheer probability dictates that in an infinite number of universes, at least some instances of you are guaranteed to escape cessation for eternity.

And for me, at least, there's some comfort in that thought.
posted by Ryvar at 7:49 PM on December 2, 2008

Check out the existentialist philosophers on this, especially Camus and Sartre. Both wrote quite a bit about the absurdity of death (see Camus The Myth of Sisyphus and The Plague). Both were atheists and came up with their own ways of defining what it means to live a meaningful life--here and now, rather than in some mythical afterworld. I found them very helpful when I first started thinking about these things.

It's important to jettison the notion that because life has an end that it isn't meaningful. This seems to be the root of a lot of the fear of letting go of notions like theism and immortality. Was Shakespeare's life any less meaningful because he's not still alive? Of course not. In fact, you can argue the opposite: life is precious because it doesn't go on forever. The limit is what creates the potential for significance.
posted by wheat at 7:50 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't ever logic my way out of it. It doesn't help. I can sometimes emotion my way out of it through stories: movies, literature. Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is very good for helping me cope.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:53 PM on December 2, 2008

Year and years and years after we are dead, the trees will still be waving in the breeze and waves rolling on the beach and there's not a damn thing to do about that. Thousands and thousands of sunny days that we will never enjoy.

Been resentful of this since grade school. Not over it. But what are you gonna do?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:56 PM on December 2, 2008

I can recall being a child and fighting sleep with every ounce of my resolve. I would fight to stay awake; to see what the grownups were doing, what would happen next in that favorite show, or to try one more time to beat that end boss.

However as I grew up, sleep became something that was no longer some terrible state to be avoided at all costs. Sleep became something I cherish, long for, and sometimes even deserve.

The sleep is unavoidable, and to me the people who fear death are like the children fighting to stay awake.
posted by axismundi at 7:57 PM on December 2, 2008 [12 favorites]

I think I unwittingly dealt with this problem by dividing my knowledge of the universe into different levels, to be considered separately. Sounds weird, but go with it for a bit.

I know that I exist, that my feelings and desires are legitimate. At the same time, I know that I am an animal and those feelings and desires are a product of evolution, produced by selection. I also know that my brain is a physical thing filled with complex chemical reactions which, somehow, are me.

I know that I will die. I know that humanity will die. I know that the universe will probably someday cease to exist as we know it.

When I consider my own life, my goals and fears and desires and so on, I think only of the first thing, that I exist. I don't think of the fate of the universe when choosing what to make for dinner or when planning a move up north. It would be not only distracting, but also just useless. Yes, I will die, yes, the universe will end, but that information does not affect the fact that spaghetti is delicious and Chicago is awesome. That's usually all I need to know.

But when I fear death, I think differently- I put aside my knowledge of myself and think on a different scale. When I die, the chemical reactions will cease. That's all I know. I can't know what it means for me, though, I can only conceptualize it as the end of a process. I don't enter into it, conceptually.

I also know that death happens to all humans, all animals, all organisms. How can it be considered unfair or alien, when for our entire evolution and through the entire development of our knowledge and belief systems, humanness and death have been totally inseparable? People talk about fighting death as if death came in from outside and robbed us of something that was ours, but that's not how it is at all. Death isn't a thing, it's the end of a thing. That thing is you. There is no stopping it. But why should it ruin your life? There has never been a life in all of creation that did not end in death. Never. I can't explain it, but I take comfort in that.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:34 PM on December 2, 2008

Here's how I replied to a more succinct version of this question 4 years ago:

Looked at as a four-dimensional object embedded in a higher-order space, your life has death on one side and birth on the other. Its other extents are determined by how far you travelled in 3-space. So you can have a larger life either by being born earlier, dying later, or travelling further. (Hint: for reason of entropy the third of these is by far the easiest.)
posted by nicwolff at 9:09 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Death terrifies me, too, but there have been times when it hasn't terrified me, though my unbelief in an afterlife was no different. At those times, my attitude was like lore's sanguine "it's just like before you were born." But when I'm panicking over death, I say fuck you to that thought, because nothing pisses you off more than an easy answer when you're upset. No, it's not like before you were born, because before you were born, you hadn't been born yet. Now that you know what you'll be missing, all the life you'll never get to live, the experiences you'll never have - how can you blithely saunter back into the abyss?

So, it's not being dead itself that's scary, it's that you don't get to be alive. It's the awareness that every second, you're hurtling toward nothingness, and panicking because you're not ready yet. It's the fear of waking up and being seventy years old and realizing you'll never ever get to do everything you wanted to do. It's too late. You can't periodically save the game so that if you make a mistake you can go back and try again.

So, what helps me is twofold. First: radical acceptance, which I recommend googling. Accept everything. Accept that you're going to die. It's going to happen. This is a fact. Then, the second part: realize that death is a fucking asshole, and get really, really pissed off. Death is the ex that cheated on you with your best friend, and death is also your best friend. Death is the mom that never really loved you, abandoned you when she ran off with the postman and then called you twenty years later to ask you for money. Death is the roommate that ate your food and left pubes on the toilet seat. Death is Dick Cheney. Death is this cop. Death stole your wallet. Death has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Are you really going to let some anal-doucheclown ruin the rest of your life? No, fuck YOU, death. That's right, motherfucker, I'll kick your ass. I'll live such a fabulous life that when you finally find me, I won't even care. So maybe you'll win in the end, but you'll know you got MODED.

Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

posted by granted at 9:44 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've always thought the end sounded peaceful, myself. No stress, no worries, no loneliness or longing or pain or fear. Just like having one of those really good nights of sleep, only forever. It doesn't seem so bad to me.

I'm certainly not ready for it yet, of course. I have a lot to do before I die. But when I get there, I think it will be nice.
posted by Caduceus at 10:10 PM on December 2, 2008

True fear is the fear of the unknown, because it cannot be visualized, planned against or confronted by its very definition.

The post-death state = the epitome of the unknown and unknowable.

I would expect the most common source of distress to the human psyche is this exact fear; you are not alone.

People find ways to accept it or prepare for it however they can; eventually, I suspect you will do the same. Nobody can live in a state of permanent panic because the body and mind will not let you. I hope you find that peace sooner rather than later.

I personally got exhausted from worry and eventually fell into a sort of comfortable, spiritual ennui, grounded by a tenuous hope of further journeys.

Everyone's method of dealing with this is different; the only right answer is whatever you can live with long-term that allows you to conduct a healthy and productive life.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:24 PM on December 2, 2008

I read a piece lately about the mind's essential inability to contemplate its own nonexistence. The URL got buried in my bookmarks but I could probably dig it up. The author's thesis if I remember correctly is that we are basically unable to imagine a world without ourselves in it as an observer. Certainly we can imagine scenes of our death and the aftermath. Our minds have never experienced anything but its own existence. It cannot imagine the absence of itself. A subtle point but an interesting one.
When they tested children they found children were easily able to distinguish actual death, it's hardwired in. But typically people attribute living characteristics to the dead, as in 'they are at peace now' type of comments. Basically our minds think they are immortal since they have never experienced anything but consciousness, even while asleep, and are incapable of experiencing true death without indeed passing from this veil of existence.
So, perhaps this fear and terror is basically based around this fact. We cannot pierce the wall of death because our minds simply cannot go there. We can't look behind the curtain until we go there ourselves...even that statement implies some form of consciousness remaining after death. And, in an animal sense, contemplating our own dying or death is terrifying in a primal kind of way, so perhaps finding a nice hobby to do instead would be a good idea.
posted by diode at 10:30 PM on December 2, 2008

This - loosely, it's the "existential question" - used to bother me a lot.

It still bothers me on an intellectual level, when I bother to contemplate it, but it doesn't bother me emotionally much anymore.

I would suggest that you have not actually found the meaning of life. This is your self's way of reminding you that you are wrong about this. When you find the meaning of life, if you do, feelings like this will disappear.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:38 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I share your views. I do not believe in the mystical (though many things are mysterious). While I'm not a Buddhist, I think it is a philosophical tradition that can often point towards the truth (it's got tons of mumbo-jumbo too, but such is life).

I recommend Thich Nhat Hahn's The Heart of Understanding and Peace in Every Step (the first ardently - pick any of his other books if you like that one, but that's where I'd start). Here is relevant talk he gave.
In order to answer what happens us when we die, we need to answer another question – what happens when we are alive?
What is happening now to us? In English we say ‘we are’ but it’s proper to say ‘we are becoming’ because things are becoming. We’re not the same person in two consecutive minutes.
A picture of you as baby looks different to you now. The fact is you are not exactly the same as that baby and not entirely a different person either. In a picture of you as a five year old, you are not exactly the same as that child and not entirely a different person either – the form, feelings and mental formations are different...

We have to learn how to die in every moment in order to be fully alive.
I do not believe in enlightenment or nirvana. But I think the practice of what Buddhists call mindfulness is worthwhile in and of itself. It's not something you do to get something, you do it to do it. As the hippy saying goes: the journey is the destination.

So be here now. But some day, now will mean part of the transition to unconsciousness, and that's understandably frightening (not experiencing anything, as other have pointed out, was the case before you were born, so that's not too troubling). I think the only way to approach this is to remain in touch with the awareness that the only life you have, the only time "you" are alive is this moment. Dying is just the last adventure for the part of the universe you call you as a thing with that funny quality of sentience, after which you'll continue in such fascinating forms as rain clouds and apples.

(If you're interested in some western philosophy that anticipates this sort of thing check out Heraclitus)
posted by phrontist at 12:25 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

I just try not to think about this shit.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:30 AM on December 3, 2008

(just to be clear, fascinating and unconscious forms like rainclouds and apples)
posted by phrontist at 12:35 AM on December 3, 2008

If I knew for certain that my mind/soul/existence would carry on after this body died, I think I’d be okay. But I don’t know that (I suppose no one knows for sure, but so many people believe) and that really stresses me out.

You're not alone there, which is why belief in some kind of afterlife persists in the face of such a comprehensive lack of evidence for one.

Since I don’t know, and I don’t believe, I’m left with death = nothingness: no body, no mind, no floating awareness of the universe.

That would appear, on the best evidence available, to be the case, yes.

I just don’t know how to accept that or rationalize it or be okay with that.

Then it will pay you to work on that, because failure to be okay with reality is the root of madness. Start by accepting it as a working hypothesis, then spend the rest of your life searching for contradictory evidence that holds up to scrutiny. Bet you a dollar you won't find any.

Our minds have never experienced anything but its own existence.

Absolutely not true.

When we're asleep, we're not experiencing our own existence. If that strikes you somehow as cheating, or dodging the question: can you explain why that is so, without first assuming the continuous existence of something called "mind"?

Even if you're willing to accept the nonexistence of your mind during sleep, it's still not true that your mind has never experienced anything but its own existence. In fact, most of what you (or your mind - distinction doesn't really matter right this instant) is not your own existence, but that of your surroundings.

If you're completely absorbed in something interesting, it's easy to go for quite long periods without bothering to remember your own existence.

The activity that could fairly be described as experiencing our own existence is, in fact, called into existence by the act of self-reflection. Until we pay attention to the matter and manner of our own existence, how can we fairly be said to be experiencing it?

It seems to me that if you've been lost in flow for half an hour, the idea that you've been "experiencing your own existence" for that half-hour is no more than a post-hoc fairy story your ego tells itself to prop up its own illusion that it is mandatory and continuous.

It cannot imagine the absence of itself.

Bollocks. I can easily imagine the absence of myself. All I have to do is picture somewhere that isn't where I am right now. Looking at somebody else's landscape photograph makes this very easy.

Sure, lots of people have a self-view involving an essential central part of them that is somehow disembodied. But this is illusory. Minds and selves are not so much objects as activities, and the thing that's doing those activities is our bodies.

This is why sleep (or other forms of unconsciousness) is not mysterious. When I'm unconscious, there isn't some mysterious "me" that goes somewhere until I wake up - what there is is a body that's doing unconscious rest instead of doing consciousness.

If you expand the space and time scales a little, you'll readily see that even your body can be thought of as more like a process or activity than a static, persistent object. Before I was born, there was no me. While I'm alive, there is me. Not long after I die, the world will return to a state of not including me.

In fact, if you expand the time scale even more, the same observation applies to any object. Any object starts, persists for some amount of time, and then finishes. This is part of what makes being being. There is no true stasis anywhere. Everything is in flux.

Before you were born, every part of what is now you was part of something else. After you die: likewise. There's really no mystery there.

This stuff only feels mysterious to people who choose to retain a tight hold on the mistaken belief that I (waves hands vaguely in own direction) am somehow more than this (slaps own chest). It's an easy error to make, especially when surrounded by people who continue to make it, but it's an error all the same.

If you need more than reading the scribblings of assorted Mefites to dispel your fear of nonexistence, try learning to play a musical instrument really really well with other people. You will find that you're unable to do this without learning to let go of your ego, and you will find that the better you get at letting go of your ego, the less fearful of nonexistence you become.

Or, you could just beat the shit out of your illusory self with psychedelics. That works too, or so I hear.
posted by flabdablet at 12:37 AM on December 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

The whole topic freaks me out so much I can't even read other people's responses.

But in answer to your question, how do I deal with it?

Denial until those stray nights at three AM when the great gaping maw of mortality hovers above me, daring me to ever get out of bed again.

In other moments, I try to remember, as I expect others have said, that this is our only life, the only one we have, and the only way to appreciate it is to live it--that's really the only way to 'handle' mortality--by being fully alive.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:01 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

..I really failed to emphasize "denial" enough.

This kind of thing is what denial is for.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:03 AM on December 3, 2008

A few different random thoughts I want to throw out here. (how much they help or dont help your situation, i guess is up for debate)

First.. you're not "fucked up".. you're human. Humans struggle with questions like this. Perfectly normal. Sharing substantial questions like this with other human beings and making a good solid connection with them in the process - is therapy in and of itself. (even if you dont find answers)

Over the years I've come to believe that most human beings spend some much time and focus on how it feels to live in a physical body, that they become blinded to any other possibility. That it literally becomes impossible for them to imagine some other existence beyond the input they get from their 5 senses. I think thats one of the reasons meditation is such a good tool. It helps us transcend our physical preoccupations and practice getting in touch with formless things like our minds. The sum total of our everyday existence is most definitely "bigger than our body".

On the topic of trying to comprehend the nature of non-existence, I'd like to add the following. It seems to me like the existence of (or lack thereof) an afterlife ... are both equally possible scenarios. (although I've had personal experiences that influenced me to strongly believe there definitely is something after death). I would venture an opinion that the majority of stress you are feeling is rooted in your choice to believe there is nothing after death. Actualizing that decision forces a lot of other questions to the forefront. Although I hate advising people to "not think about it".. in this case it might be the right advice (assuming you choose not to do meditation) Forget about dying and live fully in the magical moment of "now".

Is it possible for you to become a believer ?.. absolutely. But unfortunately theres no guidebook for that. Well, there are plenty of (religious) guidebooks, but I think they all compare poorly to discovering your beliefs on your own. There's a trick with that though - you cant force beliefs. Its not a practical skill like learning how to use chopsticks. Beliefs are shaped and formed slowly through experience and insight.
posted by jmnugent at 3:17 AM on December 3, 2008

One of the tenets to Buddhist thought is that to live an enlightened life, you practice for an enlightened death. Sounds a bit weird, but it's something that helps me. If you think about impermanence, and really meditate on your own life as being transient, it helps to detach from your sense of self-importance. Seeing yourself as being one with everything else around you has helped me cope with the sense that even after *I* am gone, everything else in the universe will keep going and that I was a part of that means that bits of me are going as well.

I don't know if I'm explaining it right, but it's like remembering that we all have atoms that once belonged to Plato or Shakespeare. There might not be anything "after," but that's ok. We do keep going, even if we're not necessarily *conscious* of it.

Reading books on Buddhist thought might help more than my babbling. I'm not saying "convert to Buddhism" but a lot of Buddhist thought deals with the impermanence of life, more so than say the Judeo-Christian philosophies. The Tibetan Book of the Dead might be a bit heavy to begin with, but it's definitely a good reference point.

I also remind myself a lot that I didn't mind not being sentient before I was born, so I'm likely not to mind it after I die either.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:48 AM on December 3, 2008

I’ve been worried about this off and on since I was a kid, but I worry about it more and more lately, and every time I think about it I break down and cry and it consumes me. Other people don’t seem to have this problem, either they believe in something after, or they don’t and they accept it. I just…haven’t reached that point yet, and I don’t know if I can.

You just...well, get over it. You don't say how old you are. I used to obsess about my own mortality when I was a teenager and a bit into my early twenties. Then, I became engaged in life, in living my life, developing it and moving forward. And the dark thoughts went away because I realized it was beyond my control.

Look, I excerpted what I did above for a reason. That could just as well have been preceded by "The woman of my life just left me and its dawning on me that we'll never be together again. I sometimes dwell on this at night and break down and cry and it consumes me" or "My mother just died and when I realize I wont have her in my life, I break down and cry and it consumes me." The same advice, surprisingly, applies here. Live your life and understand fully what is within and what is beyond your control.

Fear of pain and grief is a real fear. Fear of the abstract notion of death and non-existence is just an intellectual game. Someone above collects threads like these, I'm guessing because like a player in a puzzle game, they are hoping someone's answer will drop a clue, a hint, on the way to cracking this puzzle, to learning how to understand and hopefully conquer this existential fear.

Sorry, but your intellect will not take you there. In fact, your intellect will completely mess you up here because it will reveal the limits of human rationalizations. One of the smartest men of the 20th century, Von Neumann had one of the most tragic deaths:

When von Neumann realised he was incurably ill, his logic forced him to realise that he would cease to exist, and hence cease to have thoughts ... It was heartbreaking to watch the frustration of his mind, when all hope was gone, in its struggle with the fate which appeared to him unavoidable but unacceptable....

... his mind, the amulet on which he had always been able to rely, was becoming less dependable. Then came complete psychological breakdown; panic, screams of uncontrollable terror every night. His friend Edward Teller said, "I think that von Neumann suffered more when his mind would no longer function, than I have ever seen any human being suffer."

Von Neumann's sense of invulnerability, or simply the desire to live, was struggling with unalterable facts. He seemed to have a great fear of death until the last... No achievements and no amount of influence could save him now, as they always had in the past. Johnny von Neumann, who knew how to live so fully, did not know how to die.

Von Neumann wrecked his head because he treated the problem of death as something that perhaps a computer could solve. I disagree with that last sentence in the quote. If Von Neumann knew how to live he would have known how to die. Knowing how to live involves reaching an understanding, emotional, not intellectual, that Life is a wonderful, precious thing but also that Death is also part of Life.

I have no fear of Death. I lost it at some point. If somehow I knew that I was going to die, suddenly and painlessly (because I still fear pain) in the next month sometime, I'd just go about putting my affairs in order with no tears and no fear. I might regret the pain caused to some people I leave behind but this is similar as if I was disappearing on a long trip. I've lived an incredible life so far. Believe it or not, it almost strikes me as a bit silly to fear the inevitable.
posted by vacapinta at 4:24 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you don't exist, then how are you going to be worried about not existing? So enjoy now.
posted by jhighmore at 4:30 AM on December 3, 2008

Hopefully grapefruitmoon wont mind if I continue along her thoughtline:

another significant tenet of Buddhism is the concept of "separation" (or more precisely, that the concept of separation is an illusion). A lot of western society is built on the habits of separating and categorizing things according to their differences. This belief in separation (I am separate from you, I am separate from the tree, river, building, squirrel) in my view, is largely responsible for the importance and trauma we associate with our individual deaths. We live our entire lives being reinforced with concepts of individual self, so its no surprise we find the death of self to be a traumatic thing.

Once you get beyond "self" and recognize that we all live in a shared existence, you'll stop worrying so much about death, and find it easier to focus your energies on making this shared existence a better place. (not that you arent.. I'm just illustrating a general example)
posted by jmnugent at 4:37 AM on December 3, 2008

When it comes to such thoughts, I always recall Nabokov's opening words in his 'autobiography' "Speak, Memory".

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged -- the same house, the same people -- and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.
posted by polaroid at 5:02 AM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't have any kind of answer, but I'm pretty sure I disagree with the implication in your question (and vacapinta's response a few posts up) that this is something to be "got over", or that people who just don't seem bothered by this are to be envied. I don't really know how to express this in words but I'm sure the better path is to move towards and through this awareness that you have and somehow to incorporate it into your living, not to try to stop thinking about it.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:54 AM on December 3, 2008

Our minds have never experienced anything but its own existence.

flabdablet: Absolutely not true.
When we're asleep, we're not experiencing our own existence. If that strikes you somehow as cheating, or dodging the question: can you explain why that is so, without first assuming the continuous existence of something called "mind"?

First of all, dreams necessarily assume the existence of mind. It's not like we are a visceral blob of spiritual goo that ascends from our body into the "dreamland" of the sky during the nighttime hours. It is us that dreams, and we are, fundamentally mind-things.

Following that, I think you need to ponder over what exactly you mean by "experience". Experience and sense-perception are not equivocal. Just think about sensory-deprivation chambers. When stripped of all sensations, you're still in a state of "experiencing" because you're still living, only instead of "experiencing" the world, you're now "experiencing" your self - this is why you start to hallucinate (or "dream"), because your mind becomes its own stimulus.

It's completely illogical to say that we have experienced nonexistence, because nonexistence is predicated upon not only not sensing, but also not feeling, and not thinking. It is nothing, and you cannot experience nothing. It would be like sound transmitting through a vacuum of space - there has to be a medium for sound, for experience.

Death, if it can be likened to any one thing, it is a vacuum; a black-hole of inescapable not-sensing, not-feeling, not-thinking, not-being. It is nothing.

Why is that so scary?
Why should the terminating nature of death interfere with the living of life?

You become the walking dead when you give in to existential fear, and that's really something scary.

On preview: I agree with game warden to the events rhino. The fragility of life should be a valuable perspective to think about, not simply something to distract yourself from.
posted by tybeet at 6:39 AM on December 3, 2008

I think about this all the time, too, and it really is frightening. You are not fucked up; you are human.

I'm tearing up a little right now, in fact, because my father's going through some of the same stuff: two members of his family passed away this year, and he himself is terminally ill and might not be around this time next year. When I get him on the phone, he often talks about the conservation of energy idea: everything that makes us who we are has been and always will be around forever, so we never really go away. I like this idea and I'm comforted that others here have brought it up.

I extrapolated this a little further and figured that if everything will be around forever, and if time is infinite, a million monkeys with a million typewriters and so on, then it's only a matter of time before all the atoms that comprise us at this moment will find their way back together, and we will all be together again someday. Perhaps even with wings and cool blue hair.

And if my reasoning is wrong on that, as it very well might be, I don't want to know, because it's lovely and comforting to think about all the potential blue-haired futures ahead of us.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:02 AM on December 3, 2008

Possibly someone was referring to Krishnamurti on Death and Life
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:37 AM on December 3, 2008

I'll just add a way of looking at this whole thing that was handed down to my father from an Assistant Director he once worked with:

"If there's no solution, then there's no problem."

Nothing you can do will change it. It's going to happen to everybody, so how bad could it be?

Someone said earlier that you handled nonexistence perfectly well before you were born, so why should it be a problem after? I think Mark Twain actually wrote that once. So don't fret. Dying is just the ultimate cost of living. Just do what you can to be memorable while you're here.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 8:40 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Lots of great advice here, but FYI, your statement "Other people don’t seem to have this problem" is demonstrably false.

Have you ever seen just one minute of a Woody Allen film?
posted by lalochezia at 9:23 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

2 things for me- one was the realization that without death life is far less meaningful. Knowing that my time is limited makes me feel like I must make the most of every day, which makes the life experience that much more special and overwhelming and wonderful.

The other thing is to embrace the buddhist idea of presence. Try as hard as you can to squeeze everything out of every second and always be here now. I know that last is some new-age schmaltz that someone in a blousy shirt is making megabucks off of but its helped me a lot to really try to absorb as much as possible all the time.
posted by zennoshinjou at 9:52 AM on December 3, 2008

"Why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors." Takes one to know one, Hamlet.

I like to think of people (okay, everything, really) as a vast galaxy of infinitesimal particles. It's a funny concept, but it's more or less undeniable.

These particles are just your run-of-the-mill sub-subatomic mass/energy dealies, bumping around and causing all kinds of chemical reactions. (Consciousness is a pretty neat one.) A whole lot of them are currently configured in such a way as to make a Me, but they won't always be this way. Indeed, there's a whole bunch of them that have sloughed off over the years; I wonder what ever became of them!

When all your particles are no longer You, they'll still be around, somewhere, doing something. A lot of the chemical processes they'll go through are way more interesting than what they're doing in You. Someday they'll help in the formation of all kinds of trees and rocks and animals and rivers. When the world blows up, they'll be all over the damn universe, just like they were a long, long time ago. Think of it -- bits of former You could start up a whole race of space-dinosaurs!

My point, I guess, is that both you and your fear (which is not at all uncommon) are entirely chemical. And that I think that is awesome.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:36 AM on December 3, 2008

*vast galaxies, plural
posted by Sys Rq at 11:37 AM on December 3, 2008

I’m not afraid of dying, per se. What I am afraid of—terrified of really—is no longer existing,

Well, that's what fear of death is, really. At least, it's the fear of an unknown. If there were any solid knowledge of death being some specific form of afterlife, it would not cause the same sense of anxiety. But the idea that everything we are can vanish, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, is very unsettling. Although, as Hamlet says, the reverse is just as difficult to imagine as a positive in the end. Eternity is a long time, and perhaps by the time you've lived a long and fruitful life, it won't be so terrible to take a rest. So maybe it's best not to worry about it just yet...

Some philosophers and psychoanalysts believe that all anxiety is ultimately traceable back to fear of death... It certainly doesn't make you fucked up to feel this way, although if it is really getting in the way of your everyday life, talking to someone to find a way to deal may be worth it. But really, plenty of philosopher/ poet / artist types think the ones that are screwed up are the ones who ignore it or don't think about it at all.

If you just need to feel like other people understand what you're feeling, I feel like this is why people create art, whether visual or in written form or otherwise and whether comedic or tragic - it's either about the absurdity or the tragedy of the human condition, whichever way you want to see it, which is that we exist at all and then suddenly we don't anymore. WTF? It's nuts. And very unsettling. But kind of neat while you're there. But seriously, if you feel like no one understands the absurdity or tragedy of the human condition, read some philosophy or literature or find some better comedy, because that was what most of it was originally for... I guess it's all turned into plain old entertainment now, but try going back to the classics, or at least be more snooty about current stuff.

As for the basic anxiety, try to just think of it as, existence at all is more than makes sense - we're already in the bonus level. Death is just going back to neutral ground. So enjoy it while you can.
posted by mdn at 1:11 PM on December 3, 2008

This reminds me of a question I asked on my 25th birthday, founded upon similar fears. Some of the answers might help.
posted by changeling at 1:26 PM on December 3, 2008

Something I like to believe is that your existence isn't just limited to your own conscious self. Every person who meets you holds a different perception of who you are, which inevitably differs from what you think of yourself. Thus, multiple 'versions' of you exist within others. Whether these are 'accurate' representations of your actual self is somewhat irrelevant, since these perceptions are what affect their decisions and actions towards you. Of course, your own perception of your self affects your actions towards others, and one of the interesting things about life is you can modify this self, and eventually modify the other 'selfs' of you that exist within others.

When you die, just one of these 'versions' of your existence is gone. The others live on until the possesor themselves die, or until they pass that idea of your existence onto others, through telling stories. These stories can be positive, they can be negative - either way, your influence lives on through others, and can live on for a long, long time.

A more visible example of this is when someone achieves something really obviously notable in their lifetime, e.g. a significant breakthrough. Take Peter Abelard as an example, the famous French medieval philosopher. He is long dead, and yet he, in a sense, lives on through his writings - a snapshot of his personality, of some of his most inner thoughts, are still poured over, memorised and then passed on through multiple mediums (word of mouth, writing etc.) In this sense, he 'lives on', way beyond his actual physical death.

That is just a more visible example. The actions you take in life can have a resounding effect on things you cannot even imagine - many of the events which are going to happen in the future, be tomorrow or tens of years from now, would not happen without your influence. That influence can continue to reveberate through society, long after your death.

These ideas help me in one way come to terms with death - what it doesn't deal with is the death of your specific self, your own consciousness. That, I feel, is something you come to terms with in time, with the many experiences life throws at you.
posted by ataylor at 5:24 PM on December 3, 2008

dreams necessarily assume the existence of mind

Perhaps most descriptions or recollections or accounts of the dreaming process necessarily assume the existence of mind, but I don't agree that the dreams themselves necessarily assume any such thing. There are flow dreams and self-reflective dreams, just as there is flow wakefulness and self-reflective wakefulness; in a flow state, there is no experience of self.

It is us that dreams, and we are, fundamentally mind-things

This, it seems to me, is the fundamental error at the root of a fear of death.

I don't think we are fundamentally mind-things.

I think we are fundamentally body-things.

I think minds are just one of the things our bodies - we - do.

The fact of sleep clearly shows that mind is not one of the things we do at all times. Therefore, the fundamental must be more fundament than mental.

I also think it's perfectly sound to describe what my body is (I am) doing when it is (I am) asleep and not dreaming as something I experience. Stuff is happening to me when I'm asleep (air coming in and going out, food being digested, blood circulating, getting rolled on by the dog) that has traceable results. If I wake up in pain from a stiff neck, that's easily explained when I realize I spent the night on the wrong pillow. My mind has not experienced the gradual increase in stiffness; it only experiences its end result. But there is nothing unsound about asserting that I have experienced poor sleep posture overnight and that this is the cause of my present stiff neck. While I sleep, my experience does not include my mind; I am experiencing a period of my own mind's nonexistence.

And although it would indeed be absurd to assert that a self-reflective system such as a mind can pay attention to its own present nonexistence, there is nothing at all wrong with asserting that such a system might easily contemplate its own past and future nonexistences, whether these are due to the nonexistence of the body that runs it or not, and come to a coherent, acceptable and non-frightening understanding of how the world would be without that mind in it.

I strongly recommend such contemplation as a cure for the irrational fear of death.

To those who fear death but refuse to think it through, I can offer only a Nelson Muntz "ha-ha".
posted by flabdablet at 6:26 PM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

All living things are endowed with the imperatives of survival and procreation, it's a function of our design, and your ego is an extension of these imperatives--naturally an aversion to death is "built-in." That the human brain can conceive of a transcendent state, of an incorporeal "mind" or "spirit," probably only reflects how central survival is to our being, and not evidence of or argument for eternal consciousness.

Consider this: all living things (as far as I know) must consume other living things to survive . . . or to be more specific all organisms use organic matter for fuel. Something has to die in order to make our daily bread. The engine of life is powered by death. That's the way things work around here . . . from the moment you are born there is nothing more certain in your future than your death. One might argue it is the reason you were born, the reason you are compelled to live long enough to procreate: to eat and be eaten.

But also it means every living thing has a part, a role to play in this terrible and awesome narrative--indeed we have no choice, we cannot "opt out." It is, apparently, that important. It is your job to live as long as you can, and then, to die. You can choose to view having fore-knowledge of your own mortality as a cruel joke, or as a curiously ironic privelege: it is the revelation of Sentience that seems to imply a higher purpose . . .

and I am dying to find out what it is.
posted by Restless Day at 9:06 PM on December 3, 2008

I have to get around this problem, because thinking about it head-on doesn't seem to accomplish much for me.

The way I look at it is this: if there really is nothing after, then it is imperative to enjoy the present. Every second you spend worrying about what happens after you die, you will never get back. Given that you don't have a choice in dying, you can either chose to have a happy life, or a tortured one.

It has become easier and easier to put those worried thoughts aside now that I have that perspective. I used to spend hours, and at times even a week or more, just in a frantic state over it. It hardly lasts more than a few minutes when it happens, now.

Honestly, my biggest fear isn't my own death, but the death of those important to me. But the same idea applies there: it would be wasteful to mourn them before they are gone, because I will never get that time with them back. My mother mourned my father for twelve years before he died because he had health problems, and seeing what a mess it turned her into has been instructive to me. It's easier said than done, but it helps me keep that in mind.
posted by Nattie at 12:21 AM on December 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I swear I've read every post in this thread, but I can't remember if anyone has brought up this apropos book: "Nothing to Be Frightened Of" by Julian Barnes.
posted by grumblebee at 5:49 PM on December 4, 2008

Continuing to Live
by Philip Larkin

Continuing to live -- that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries --
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise --
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it's chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what's the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.
posted by ageispolis at 11:26 PM on December 13, 2008

"Where death is, I am not; where I am, death is not."
- Epicurus
posted by ageispolis at 12:36 PM on December 14, 2008

My cheery grandfather used to say "When you're dead you don't have to worry anymore."

If your sentience comes to an abrupt end, you won't need to worry about it when it occurs. That leaves you to deal with anxiety regarding your eventual fate here, in the present.

To that I say this: Why bother stressing out over something you can't do anything about?

Just accept it and move on. It's simple, but it works for me. I hope it also works for you.
posted by Modus Pwnens at 12:06 AM on December 27, 2008

"Man, this kidney stone is bad news, I don't think I'm going to make it. At least I don't need to fear death!" -Epicurus
posted by Modus Pwnens at 12:11 AM on December 27, 2008

Just start an interesting website. A part of you will live as long as the tubes do.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 10:10 PM on January 7, 2009

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