One of the most useful things about our minds
is that they can in some moods allow us to
step outside of ourselves – and consider our
troubles and most of all the idea of our death
from a wholly dispassionate perspective, as
if it were someone else who would have to
go through the event and as if we could understand
it in the same way that a stranger four centuries
from now might, in other words, as if it might
not in the end be such a big deal at all,
just an inevitable return to an atomic mulch
from which our life was only ever a brief
and unlikely spasm.
The Dutch seventeenth century philosopher
Baruch Spinoza made a famous distinction between
two ways of looking at death. We could either
see it egoistically, from our limited point
of view, as he put it in Latin: sub specie
durationis – under the aspect of time – at
which point it would be a tragedy. Or we could
look look at it from the outside, globally
and eternally, as if from the eye of another
force or planet: sub specie aeternitatis – under
the aspect of eternity, at which point it
would be an utterly untroubling and normal
event. Spinoza recognised that for much of
our lives, we are necessarily pulled by our
bodies towards a time-bound and egoistic view,
aligning all our concerns with the survival
of our own bodies. But he stressed that our
minds also give us unique access to another
perspective, from which the particulars of
our material identities matter far less. Our
minds allow us – and here Spinoza becomes
lyrical – to participate in eternal totality
and to achieve piece of mind by aligning ourselves
with the trajectory of the universe.
Below us will
be millions of near microscopic worms, waiting
for us to succumb and be reabsorbed into the
soil and the life-cycle. In the trees outside
might be birds
and in the grass, bugs
which would, given the chance, intrepidly
venture across our necks or throw down a gelatinous
trail across our ankles. Above us will be
a mere 60 miles or so of atmosphere, before
we enter a zone of unfeasible cold, in one
corner punctuated by the lights of the distant
Andromeda Galaxy, a dotted spiral 2.5 million
light-years away that started to take shape
10 billion years ago.
We can imagine floating free of ourselves,
piercing the ceiling and the roof and rising
above our district and our city, climbing
until we could see the whole countryside and
the coast, then the sea (plied by ferries
and container ships), then the ocean, a next
continent, mountain ranges, deserts, until
we penetrated the outer atmosphere and entered
deep space. We might continue outwards through
our solar system, out into interstellar space,
then intergalactic space, past 400 billion
stars and a 100 billion planets, past Saggitarius
A and the Laniakea Supercluster and onto the
furthest galaxy from earth in the universe,
MACS0647-JD, where we would finally rest,
13.3 billion light years away from our own
Far from crushing us, this impression of the
vastness of space and time in which we dwell
can redeem and lighten us.
We are – when we have the courage to know
it – staggeringly unimportant in the larger
scheme. On a cosmic scale nothing we will
ever do, or fail to do, has the slightest
significance. Everything connected directly
to us is of no importance at all, when imagined
on an appropriate scale. We are negligible
instances, inhabiting a random, unremarkable
backwater of the universe, basking for an
instant or two in the light of a dying star.
This perspective may feel cruel but it is
also centrally redemptive, for it frees us
from the squeals of our own frightened egos.
States of higher consciousness are generally
desperately short lived. But we should make
the most of them when they arise, and harvest
their insights for the panicky periods when
we require them most. Higher consciousness
is a huge triumph over the primitive mind
which cannot envisage the possibility of its
We can’t know what our end will be. Maybe
we’ll be lingering for years, hardly able
to remember who we are; maybe we’ll be cut
off by a horrifying internal growth or a key
organ will fail us and the end will be instantaneous.
But we can imagine our funeral; the things
people might say or feel they have to say;
we can imagine people crying; our will being
enacted, then being gradually forgotten, becoming
a strange figure in a family photo. Soon enough
we’ll diminish into uncertainty (‘one
of my great grandparents was a lawyer, I think,
maybe…’) someone will say. It will be as if we had never been.
We should expect to be a little melancholy.
Melancholy is not rage or bitterness, it is
a noble species of sadness that arises when
we are open to the fact that disappointment
and injury are at the heart of human experience.
In our melancholy state, we can understand
without fury or sentimentality that no one
fully understands anyone else, that loneliness
is universal and that every life has its full
measure of sorrow.
But though there is a vast amount to feel
sad about, we’re not individually cursed
and against the darkness, many small sweet
things stand out: love, forgiveness, creativity.
With the tragedies of existence firmly in
mind, we can learn how to draw the full value
from what is good, whenever, wherever and
in whatever doses it arises.
To meditate on the unimportance of our own
end, stangely, does not make it more frightening.
The more absurd our death the more vivid our
appreciation of being alive. Our conscious
existence is unveiled not as the inevitable
state of things but as a strange, precious,
moment of grace. We may be amazed to be here
at all – and no longer quite so sad about
the time when we no longer will be.
Please comment like and subscribe and take a look at our shop for more from the school of life.