The best in life is yet to be: an essay on healthy mortality

The Thinker by Rodin

Another birthday has come and gone. Since this one did not end in a zero, it did not deserve particular attention. But since I am in my sixties now, most of my life is firmly in the past. I’ll be fortunate if only two-thirds of it is in my past. Aside from a nice dinner of meatloaf and seeing If Beale Street could talk at a local arts cinema, it was like any other day.

Something I find curious about aging is that the one thing that bothered me about it growing up – death – doesn’t particularly bother me anymore. Death should be less of an abstraction at my age. We had our next-door neighbor die about a year ago. Both my parents are dead; my father curiously died three years ago on my birthday. My daughter slips into her thirties this year. We are on on our fourth set of cats. Living in a 55+ community, with most of my fellow residents older than me, it appears that advancing age doesn’t seem to bother them either. The oldest is 93 and he still gets around and enjoys life.

I’m trying to figure out why this is. It could be because I am in reasonably good health and have an excellent chance of enjoying another twenty years or more in good health. Part of it could be because we are both retired and don’t have the hassle of working or worrying about money anymore. But I’m also coming to think that a lot of it is due to not being religious. In my early twenties it’s fair to say I wasn’t religious, but I was still under a religious hangover. In my case, it was a Roman Catholic hangover. It clouded my thinking about death.

With a few exceptions, religion does much more to make us anxious about death than provide a balm to address it. It does seem ironic because if you check off the right checkboxes and have true faith, then eternal life is something of a given, albeit in a different state. And we are promised that in this case our next eternal and spiritual life will be a lot happier than this one.

For many of us, life is more chore than blessing. I don’t have to step far from my home to see it. During the recent arctic blast, two homeless people died of hypothermia in a tent behind a McDonalds restaurant in Greenfield, a town twenty-five miles north of us. The local homeless shelters could not accommodate the overflow crowds. I can see the homeless wandering downtown or holding cardboard signs at some prominent intersections. As miserable as life appears to be for them though, they still cling to it. For retired people like me without much in the way of worries about descending into poverty, life at this stage is exactly what I wanted out of life and finally received. It feels like a blessing. And it is, at least partly. I was able to hang onto a good paying job with benefits long enough to reach a good retirement, and there were no intervening medical complications to strip it all away.

No wonder so many retired people are happy with their lives. Death is unavoidable but so is life. And life is often very complex to navigate, and gets more complex everyday. In my early twenties, my real angst was likely not about some inevitable future death, but whether I could pay the rent next month. It was likely that the latter fed the former.

It used to be that life was a much more miserable experience. Retirement was virtually unheard of. Many of us lived with massive pain and discomfort we could do little to remedy. Most of us died long before we were at a retirement age, often painfully and violently. If we reached old age, we depended on our offspring to tend to us when our bodies grew frail. Medicine though only became useful in the last hundred years. Social safety nets did not exist then; living in general was precarious and scary. Retirement was a luxury for the truly rich, if they survived long enough to enjoy it. Now most of us will reach retirement age and increasingly most of us can enjoy it.

In those darker and scarier times, religion promised not only salvation but also something more important: eternal comfort in some future afterlife, which was naturally appealing because for most of us life was trial and tribulation. These days though many of us can have that comfort right now, or at least when we reach retirement age. Is it any surprise then that in countries with high standards of living that religion seems to be fading away? It’s not just Western Europe; it’s happening here in the United States too, albeit more slowly. It’s fading faster in places that are more prosperous. Hence you find more atheists in New Jersey, and fewer in Deep South Alabama. Prosperity may be what kills off religion.

My devout Catholic mother went to her grave scared out of her mind. Part of it was because her condition was quite debilitating: her case of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy is similar to Parkinson’s disease. In general, it’s a bad way to go. Michael J. Fox isn’t happy about his diagnosis. Robin Williams made what seemed to him the logical choice and hung himself rather than go through a miserable decline. But my mother was also uncertain about whether she would make it into heaven. She alluded to many mistakes she had made in her life, as if any of us get through life without making mistakes. I think what really terrified her was not finding going to hell, but the idea of utter nothingness, which you have to assume happens to you after death if there is no afterlife. It terrified her probably because her Catholic faith had kept her thinking about it, at least until she couldn’t not think about it anymore.

And yet as I noted before, no one worries about their state of nothingness before they were conceived. So logically it’s kind of silly to worry about what you are after death, if anything. I do suspect though that with the right education a lot of us can learn to deal with death in a much more … what’s the word … healthier way. We can choose to be terrified of it, or not, by death. But it cannot be escaped.

I think that’s where my head is right now. Whether my soul survives after death or not doesn’t particularly bother me. For me, what works is to be present in my own life every day, and to do things that I find interesting and meaningful every day. With death the lights may go out or not, but I do take some comfort that I am immortal in a way. Because of Albert Einstein, we know that space-time is real, and that time is an illusion. My mom is still alive somewhere in the space-time matrix. I just lack the ability to slide through space-time like a tape recorder to see her again. Some mediums though claim they can do this.

Given that space-time is a fact and that religion requires faith, knowing that space-time exists tells me that I am immortal in a way, as I am part of space-time which is effectively immortal. It is a sort of faith for the faithless. And I didn’t need Jesus Christ to find it. I needed to understand the implications of what Albert Einstein was telling us.

The nature of reality isn’t what you think it is

The Thinker by Rodin

The answer to the universe may not be 42 (hat tip to the late Douglas Adams), but its unreality.

That is, it is unreal in the way that most of us think of reality. For example, we perceive that the universe unfolds in a linear fashion, that we exist in corporal form, and that the future cannot influence the past. But that’s not my impression anymore. It’s based on reading a lot about physics and quantum mechanics and more recently from watching a lot of YouTube videos on these topics.

In many ways I believe that we actually are living in the matrix, but not The Matrix presented in three movies of the same name. These movies fancifully depict our lives as hallucinations controlled by machines. If I sound like a raving lunatic, then there are a lot of physicists who agree with me. Physics is revealing certain things about our universe that cannot be explained by the way we think we perceive reality.

It was Albert Einstein who first coined the term space-time. Basically, he discovered that space and time do not exist separately, but they are one thing, whose shape can be perturbed by gravity (which turns out to be a much more mysterious force than space-time.)

On the other end of the spectrum is string theory, the study of the extremely small, which tries to explain just what matter and energy are. We are enmeshed in the fabric of the universe, the physicist Brian Greene wrote in a book of the same name. It was largely his book, which I read back in 2004, which has kept me engaged in this topic since then.

Just as a TV screen consists of pixels, the fabric of space-time appears to have a fundamental unit much, much smaller than an atom. It’s Planck’s constant, which is not a measure of a distance as it is a constant used to express the energy carried by a photon in relation to its frequency. Its value, by the way, is 6.626070150 × 10-34 Joules per second, exactly. The International Standards Organization formally refined its value just five days ago. As best we can tell, it defines the reality we experience, or more specifically an “atom” of space-time itself, something that cannot be further subdivided. This is the stuff that we, but really everything, are made of.

If there is anything apart from the universe, it may be consciousness itself. As best physicists can tell us, time is an illusion, perhaps a mechanism created by consciousness itself to make sense of the universe it is either placed in or observes. Given that space-time exists, but neither space nor time exists as a separate entity, then past and present are permanently linked, and what we perceive as the future influences our past as much as our past influences our future. Who we are is really some subset of space-time. At least in theory it can be played like a recorder, or even played backward.

The more I study quantum physics, the more what appears to be wacky stuff seems to be merging with our “reality”, such as it is. Atheists believe there is no afterlife and there is no soul. It’s a reasonably inference given that most of us don’t see ghosts. If we witness a car running into a brick wall at 100mph, we feel certain its driver is dead. And I won’t argue that that driver is indeed dead, at least as we are bound to perceive him or her in a linear time frame. I think it’s more accurate to say that because we experience the illusion of time, they are dead to us. Yet there they remain, like in indelible ink, caught forever in the matrix of space-time. Our inability to not experience the universe as it actually is, but only linearly, is a deficiency. It’s also an illusion; our shared illusion. Or perhaps more accurately it’s our shared delusion. If souls exist then almost by any definition they travel independent of linear time.

Birth, death and likely living itself are illusions. While ultimately illusions, they are also indelibly real, which makes them hard to figure out. If you are a prisoner traveling in a linear time frame, then they cannot seem to be anything but real. But now physicists are telling us that because space-time is a thing, that our experience of time is indeed an illusion.

I prefer to think of a life as a path, or perhaps a journey, one of an infinite number of paths that can be chosen through space-time. Consciousness itself appears to choose the path we are on. We experience what is before us and react to it as best we can within the limits of our ability to perceive, understand and choose. It may be that we can experience many “lives” through space-time through this thing called consciousness. Hopefully with each reincarnation we do a better job of it.

So everything we experience is both real in a linear sense, yet surreal based on our understanding of the nature of the universe. This is why for me understanding physics is the ultimate head-trip. It describes the nature of reality and what we perceive as reality. It’s clear to me that we are part of a vast and seemingly infinitely complex virtual reality where the perceived and very real (to us) linear parts are very slowly being revealed, thanks to the physicists studying our universe.

Still confused? You have every right to be. But for me this understanding makes more sense the more I study it, and makes me realize certain things. For example, there is no more reason to fear death than birth. We should not fear the escape death might bring us from this experience of linear time that we are trapped in. Death may be the ultimate liberation. Soul may be nothing more than our eternal consciousness as we experience it in a space-time universe.

You may find this video by Quantum Gravity Research to be helpful in getting your mind around this: