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. But death 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:

There is no Planet B

The Thinker by Rodin

When I have time to fill in my retirement, I can easily spend it among the endless documentaries on YouTube. I have spent a lot of my free time watching videos on space-time. Space-time is the matrix in which we live and it’s very much a real thing. There is no way to separate space from time. It (not they) literally comprises the fabric of the universe, fabric that can be warped by gravitational forces. It’s fascinating stuff if you can wrap your head around it.

Some of these videos take on the topic of traveling to distant stars. They talk about why it’s prohibitively expensive in time and energy to even come close to approaching the speed of light. If we hope to escape our solar system and colonize planets around distant stars we will have to figure out how to do this. What I’ve gleaned from these videos is that there is basically no way to do this. In the embedded video, the sun is reduced to the size of pea. The videographer then shows the distance of our closest star, Proxima Centauri, which would be 125 miles away. Moreover, Proxima Centauri would be the size of a radish seed.

Proxima Centauri is about 4.25 light years away. If you could get a spacecraft to go ten percent of the speed of light, which doesn’t seem technically possible due to the energy required, it would take 42 years to get to Proxima Centauri. The chance of finding a habitable planet around it is virtually nothing, which means the closest habitable planet is likely to be much farther away. Moreover, humans hoping to emigrate there would have to bring everything they need with them. Many generations would live and die in the void of interstellar space on this journey. Given the law of entropy, it’s unlikely their vessel would make it to its destination with any of its passengers alive.

Which is why in practical terms that humans should look closer to home. Mars is probably the closest possibly habitable planet, but it really cannot be considered habitable. It has 1/100 of the earth’s atmosphere, its atmosphere is toxic and too cold for us and everything is covered in a fine dust that would probably have us looking like coal miners. We’d probably have to live underground. Most likely going there would be a one-way trip, as our muscles would likely atrophy in the lighter gravity. Pretty much everything would have to be imported from earth, at least for many decades. Just getting there would mean being exposed to high does of cosmic radiation that would change our DNA and likely mean our children would have birth defects. In short, actually living on Mars would probably be hellish. No sane person would want to stay there. Even getting there and back might kill you or at least shorten your lifespan. Perhaps we’ll find ways to shield ourselves from the cosmic radiation on the journey, but it’s unlikely.

Venus has a more earth-like gravity but is literally hotter than hell not to mention filled with an atmosphere of lethal gases and constantly swirling storms. There is some talk that maybe a moon of Jupiter or Saturn could support a human colony. Getting there would take much longer than to Mars and there is no moon that can really be considered Earth-like. Some appear to have water (ice) and something resembling an atmosphere, but life there would be problematic at best. Many of these moons seems to be rocked by earthquakes.

All this leads this space-buff to conclude that we humans are stuck here on Earth, barring some sort of incredible technology that seems extremely unlikely or some asterisks to the laws of relativity that don’t appear to exist. It’s understandable that humans will want to explore new frontiers. It’s also abundantly clear that we are quickly making the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation, pollution and deforestation.

Attempts to colonize these brave new worlds will likely prove disastrous and prohibitively costly. Yet that’s seems to be where people like Elon Musk are anxious to go. If he can shoot a Tesla toward the outer planets, a manned trip to Mars can’t be that far away. He’s hoping to do something like this in the 2020s. I confess I will be excited if he or NASA succeeds in something like this. While it is likely to be exciting, it is certainly fraught with peril. Assuming the astronauts make it back, it’s likely that their DNA will not be quite what it was. Astronauts who have spent long time periods in the International Space Station have already noted chromosomal abnormalities. Science Magazine in 2016 noted that lunar astronauts had a much higher risk of heart disease. This is likely due to the higher cosmic radiation in the space between the Earth and the Moon.

While mankind’s desire to explore other worlds is understandable, if much of our motivation for getting off-planet is to deal with the population crisis then we are being hopelessly naïve. Which means that as painful as it may appear to be, it will be infinitely less costly to address our climate, population and pollution crises here and now. Our lovely Mother Earth that we are quickly destroying is all that cocoons us.

Hopefully the Trump Administration’s foolhardy rush toward oblivion will be short-lived. Hopefully Americans will come to their senses and elect politicians that will address these problems. Resolving seemingly intractable problems like our religious and ethnic wars, or poverty or population control simply must happen or we doom humans and our ecosystem to extinction.

There is no Planet B for humans to colonize. We live on a planet that should be our Eden. We must make it that or perish.

On the movable walkway called life

The Thinker by Rodin

As you may have noticed, one consequence of being born is that you eventually must die. It may seem unfair, but that’s just the way it is. We are all prisoners in our own unique time stream. We step onto our time stream (we assume) at birth, although some part of it begins at conception.

Yes, our life is undoubtedly a time stream. It is like one of those very long movable walkways that you find in large airports that carry you inside or between concourses. Its speed is constant. During the time you stand on the walkway, you stay in one place while things move around you. Eventually the walkway ends and the journey stops. We get off the walkway when we die but while we are on the walkway, we are its prisoner.

Unlike the movable walkway, we are not entirely sure how we got on it in the first place. The walkway behind us is quickly shrouded in mist and the walkway ahead, except for the first couple of feet, remains a dense fog. However, we can look to our left and our right and enjoy our limited view.

Unlike walkways in airports, this walkway is very wide. In fact, we cannot see either of its sides. Yet we know we are on the walkway because things are happening all around us. Suns rise and set. Seasons pass and return. Things that looked shiny and new last year lose their luster this year and in a dozen years are often dysfunctional or obsolete. Trying to find the edges of the walkway is as futile as trying to sail off the edge of the world. Space and time curve all around us. We cannot see the curve but we sense it is there. We feel its truth: that we are a singularity in a matrix called space-time. Ephemeral things, some alive and some not surround us. They are often beautiful. At its best life resembles a magnificent kaleidoscope. We often feel like we are sitting in a theater and our life is unfolding on the screen.

It is natural to wonder what happens when the movie that is our life ends. Are there credits? Were we really its producer and director, or just the unknowing actors? These may be impenetrable questions, but sages and common people have pondered them for time immemorial. The atheist believes that when our movie comes to and end, the lights go out and we are simply nothingness. The theist believes there is a producer. Some believe there is a producer and director. The producer is called God. The Christians call the director Jesus. The Muslims call him Muhammad. The Hindus believe there are many producers and directors and they often slip between their roles. Some of these directors coach us more than they coach others. The Buddhists think that like the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, when you pull back the curtain you find another human like yourself (perhaps yourself) at the control directing the special effects. The agnostic doesn’t know if there are producers or directors. He does not exclude them but has a hard time trusting what he cannot see. The humanists are unconcerned about how we got on the walkway or where it will end, but is only concerned about the state of the walkway right now and how we can all live more happily in the present

In general, the longer you stay on the walkway the more you feel the past fade. You see the collection of things you have surrounded yourself with disintegrate before your eyes. You watch people, many of them loved ones, mysteriously drop off the walkway altogether, particularly as they age. The more you witness these events, the more certain you become that your walkway will end for you too at some murky time in the future. A relative handful finds the walkway very annoying. They take their own lives, figuring wherever they end up, if anywhere, is less painful than the present.

How should you spend your time while you remain on the walkway? This too is a topic of great concern for the people on the walkway. Some people are much more concerned about the next walkway. They advise that we should spend much of our time on this walkway preparing the next one. For theists there are generally two walkways that occur after death: one toward heaven, glory and salvation and the other toward hell and misery. To the Buddhist, our walkways sort of cycle backs on itself. They are confident that after death we are quickly deposited into another walkway. While our memories of our last life will be erased, we will carry our personalities and predispositions into the next life. Nirvana is the act of getting off the time stream altogether. Meditation and living simply are the keys. Enlightenment is the goal. You reach nirvana when you have achieved full enlightenment. Then they assert the carousel finally stops, you can dismount, exit and see what, if anything, is real.

Sometime in my early 20s, I remember being profoundly shaken that I was aging. Before entering adulthood, old age was so far enough away that it was abstract and hence nothing to worry about. Grabbing the reins of adulthood made me feel that life was in reality fleeting. Now in my 50s, I still feel the steady passage of the years. It feels like I am at the bow of a ship heading into the wind. The wind tears across my face but the infinite sea ahead is as mysterious and impenetrable as ever.

Strangely at age 52, while I remain leery of death, it no longer seems as fearful while at the same time it feels more tangible. I now accept that I am born to die and that’s just the way it is. It is natural to be inquisitive about dying and death, but to be obsessive about it the way I was in my twenties now seems a great waste of my life’s energies. Whatever movie I am in, it is not a bad movie and it gets more engrossing as the years pass.

Today, it feels more natural to be in the moment than to peer into an impenetrable far future. I see progress in myself and in my life. Some part of me longs for the immortal feeling of youth again, but some other part of me is also glad it is in my far past. I am more comfortable, more ordered and find more meaning now than I did thirty or forty years in my past. I feel grounded, but not rooted. My feelings will probably continue to change as I age, but right now, I accept life for what it is. I accept that it must end and feel that embracing the present is the healthiest thing for me. The movable walkway is my home, so I had better enjoy it and take care of it as best my limited skills will allow.