Death – much ado about nothing?

The Thinker by Rodin

There is nothing like a long three-week convalescence to focus your mind on the impermanence of all things. Our bodies are infinitely complex biological machines. They work with freaky regularity and excellence until one day when, of course, they do not. In my case, it stopped on January 14th when I had tarsal tunnel surgery on my right foot and nerve release surgery on the right leg.

For the first week, I spent a lot of time hobbling from place to place either in crutches or gingerly on my right leg, wrapped in multiple layers of cotton and ace bandages. Since then, the crutches have been unnecessary. I walk where I need to go slowly but mostly stay indoors. The layers of cotton surrounding my leg and foot are gone. They were replaced with two layers of ace bandages on the foot, and now just a single layer. As I end this convalescence, my final accommodations are to keep an ace bandage on the foot and not to drive.

Thanks to the charity of friends and family, I have been fortunate enough to get to the office twice. Mostly I work from my dining room table using my employer provided laptop computer. Getting through our firewall at work remotely now means inserting my smart card into a USB smart card reader and authenticating myself using a PIN, although it hardly seems any more secure than using an ID and password. Conference calls are also more restful. I can hold the receiver in one hand while lying on the couch. Dagwood Bumstead would love working from home. Yet, despite its creature comforts, I still prefer the familiarity of the office.

As regular readers know, it is my belief that I have a soul, there likely is an afterlife of some sort and I am probably stuck in some circle of life, death and rebirth. Billions would probably agree with me. Millions would not. The latter believe that life is a highly improbable cosmic accident and the consequence of billions of years of evolution. When death arrives, all the lights go out. My friend Wendy, as well as one of my brothers, are in this group. For those of us who find life worth living, nonexistence is a depressing thought. However, because of my surgery, I am thinking maybe death (or non-existence) is not such a big deal. Maybe it means nothing at all. Instead, maybe we may choose to give it a status far larger than it deserves.

Life and death are interwoven into the universe whether we like it or not. As the Buddhists and others have long asserted, the only constant in the universe is change, so you might as well accept it. There are larger forces at work that can be lumped into one world: reality. Time is real, or is at least an aspect of living that cannot be denied. Even stars are born, age and die. Sometimes when they die, they throw their detritus out into the universe in the form of more complex matter. We are all literally the product of this star stuff. Moreover, we are destined to return to star stuff. Some part of our matter and energy was once in a star somewhere. Our matter and energy will once again be part of a star someday. In that sense, we are immortal and have been since the universe was created.

We have all already traversed the universe. Should mankind make it to another solar system someday, we will simply be retracing our inorganic roots. We are not just tied to our planet and solar system; we are tied to the universe. If some day we warp around space like they do in Star Trek, we are not exploring strange new worlds, we are returning home.

During my surgery, I was under general anesthesia for about two hours. Clearly, I did not die in those two hours. Whatever anesthesia I was given had the property of shutting down my consciousness for those two hours (or gave me the inability to recall any of it). I remember being on the surgical table and then, just as in death, the lights went out. Two hours later I was in another room, I was awake and the lights went on. During those two hours, I assume I was alive, but I might as well have been dead. Those two hours of non-existence, which might be more accurately described as an inability to remember anything or to act in any manner whatsoever, perhaps prove a point made by my atheist friends and siblings: death really does not matter.

While fear of death seems to be a human characteristic, perhaps it is all wasted energy. Not that it is easy to do, but perhaps we would all be much happier if we spent our time alive concentrating on living and forgetting all about death. After all, you cannot change the fabric of the universe or its rules. We are all caught in this incredibly complex space-time matrix. If being unconscious during my surgery is any guide, death, which for us humans seems to equate to non-consciousness, really does not matter.

Being infirmed of course matters, as I discovered. Dying matters as well as it is a progressively worse state of being infirmed. In either case, you are losing your tether to your known reality. Our species takes comfort in the known, safe and predictable. In my case, I missed the comfortable ritual of driving to and from the office, and inhabiting an office with a nice view of the Shenandoah Mountains five floors up. Working from home with one foot propped up was convenient and facilitated my recovery, but was awkward and different. Hobbling around in crutches for a week was also difficult, inconvenient and at times painful. It is understandable that I would have some petty grievances over my convalescence. However, when it ends on Friday, I should be back to better health than I was before the surgery. I hope that my life will become more comfortable and less painful.

I take some comfort in this expectation. I also take some comfort in the experience of being unconscious during my surgery, because the universe is also teaching me a lesson: neither my lack of consciousness during surgery nor death in itself are worth worrying about. Hopefully I will fully absorb these lessons and live my remaining life to its fullest in the time ahead of me.

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