While working last night on my present series of posts, this one made a sudden, unexpected arrival, and wrote itself in short order, and so I share it with you …
Writing, as I’ve been doing, about my view of God as being more of a transcendental process than a locatable person, I’ve been reminding myself that I’ve now lived for seventy-six years. I’m recalling TS Eliot’s lines, “I grow old …I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Well no, I won’t, but I’m now in the uppermost branches of my ‘tree of life’ and whereas, when I was six years old, a year was a big 1/6th of my life, it’s now a small 1/76th, and flies much faster away. So what are my thoughts about dying and death?
My thoughts about dying are probably best understood in my remorseless Facebook posts, and emails to MSPs, as a campaigner for Scotland to join in the currently growing, widespread progress of ‘assisted dying’ legislation. I object to opponents who deliberately refer to ‘assisted suicide’. People can choose to end their lives, but terminally ill people have had that choice removed. The one, remaining choice that should not be denied them, is the time, place and nature of their death. When ‘normal’ palliative care reaches its limits its logical extension (not contradiction), is the peaceful and painless death which was the last good thing we could give to our beloved sheltie, Jake.
So what about death itself? The idea of being dead doesn’t trouble me, because I reckon it will either be some kind of ‘agreeable’ (collective if not personal) experience, or a non-event – an endless, dreamless ‘sleep’, the ultimate ‘long lie’. My ‘God’ is what the theologian Paul Tillich called the “Ground of Being-Itself”, the ultimate Source from which has arisen life, consciousness, and self-awareness. It’s that word ‘self’, however, which can give rise to some potential difficulties.
Our awareness is linked to electro-chemical activity in our brains, but I’m with those who argue that the immateriality of consciousness is categorically different from the physicality of brain tissue. I think of the analogy of radios, which ‘tune in’ to radio waves. Being physical creatures, we need material brains to ‘tune in’ to conscious awareness. But just as radio waves continue when the radio is switched off, it seems to me that ‘awareness’ can continue after our brains have ‘switched off’.
It should be noticed that what I haven’t said is ‘personal awareness’. Our personal awareness, our sense of a ‘self’, is tied to the history of our bodily growth and activities, and our memories of these. If you ask me who I am, I’ll tell you about things I’ve said and done, places I’ve visited, and people I’ve known etc. All of that, of course, matters to us in this present life, but it needn’t necessarily matter to us after death, if a different kind of ‘awareness’ should take its place.
I think we need to be prepared to ‘let go’ of our attachment to this body of ours. If people don’t, all sorts of unanswerable problems arise. Will I continue to be the same age after death as I am now? Will a two year old child continue to be the same age, or ‘grow up’? These problems are needlessly self-created by bodily attachment, so let that go.
In Khalil Gibran’s “Fear”, death is a return to the Ground of Being-Itself from which our ‘awareness’ came, but that didn’t become self-awareness until our physical birth. It’s been good to have had that added prefix, but it can also surely be good to let it go, and to return to the all encompassing collective awareness. I think of people who have dementia, and of their loved ones, who see the ‘self’ they’ve known and loved progressively disappearing from view. That matters keenly. But if, as Khalil Gibran says, “It’s not about disappearing into the ocean, but of becoming the ocean”, and if all the people we know and love will also become that ocean, in a collective ‘awareness’, then all is not lost.
What would absorption into that collective awareness, or becoming that ocean, ‘be like’? There is no possible answer to that question. It’s altogether out of our present self-bound experience. This may all, of course, be complete nonsense, or wishful thinking, or whatever, but it seems to me to be something I can live with, and something I can die with. And if, instead, it’s a case of the candle going out, and the long, silent, darkness descending, I can think of many things much less agreeable than that.