I will not be surprised to find that my consciousness continues after death, but my current contentment and well-being does not depend on it.
Belief in an Afterlife
In the past I’ve felt comforted by holding onto the belief that there is life after death. I’ve also felt equally comforted by the conviction that there is nothing after death. I latched on to each of these extremes because the truth didn’t satisfy me – I believed that there has to be an answer one way or the other, and that it was my job to find this answer. I wanted certainly so that I could end my concerns about death and just get on with life. I now accept that such certainly does not exist for me, but that I can erase my fear of death by embracing this uncertainty.
Fear of Death Kept Me Awake at Night
I can’t remember much about my early childhood, but I do remember the first time that I became aware of the meaning of death. It was around the time of my grandfather Garrigan’s funeral when I was seven. I don’t have that many memories of him, but I do remember laying in bed feeling terrified about what had just happened. I realized that he was no longer going to be in my life, and that other people I cared about would eventually die too– it also meant that there would come a day when I would die. I’ve no idea how many nights these fears kept me awake, but I resolved them by developing a strong belief in the afterlife. I clung to these stories of a heaven as if they were a lifeboat, and it worked for a time. By the age of 14 though, I was well on my way to atheism and a new kind of certainty about the afterlife.
The Comfort of an Atheist
During my mid-twenties I went through a full year of feeling suicidal. At that period of my life I would have considered myself to be a hardened atheist. By this I mean that I got great comfort from the idea that there was no God and therefore nothing after death. This was the lowest point in my addiction to alcohol and my life felt worthless and pointless – I just wanted it to end. I not only didn’t believe in an afterlife, but I also didn’t want there to be one.
During this year of despair I got close to suicide a number of times, but the only thing that kept me back was fear. What if I was wrong? What if blessed oblivion was not waiting for me on the other side? What if there would be some price to pay for my act? Worse still, what if by killing myself I would be somehow destined to relive this shitty miserable life over and over again? I felt sure that the afterlife was just wishful thinking for the weak and stupid, but when it came to actually testing this conclusion the doubts began to crop up. I wasn’t willing to take the risk because, when push came to shove, I knew that there was no way for me to know anything about what happened after the death of the physical body.
The Hypocrisy of My Beliefs
I slowly realized that the criticisms that I once made about believers could have equally applied to me. I wanted to believe in something that gave me comfort. It scared me that my consciousness might continue after death because this would involve a step into the unknown. By saying that there was nothing after life it meant that there was no unknown to worry about. I felt confident that I’d feel no regret about not existing; if there is nothing after death there will be no person to feel that they are missing out on anything. In many ways the believers were braver than I because they seemed to have the worse deal – fear of hell or a never ending existence which must surely get boring after a few thousand years no matter how wonderful it all is. There can be far more comfort in believing that there is nothing than believing that there is something unknown beyond physical death. This means that belief in nothingness may be as much wishful thinking as being convinced of a particular type of afterlife.
No Evidence for an Afterlife
My confidence in the non-existence of an afterlife was bolstered by my conviction that there was no evidence for such a thing. After all, I should only believe in things that I have evidence for – right? It was here that my thinking took a huge leap – I mistook lack of evidence as evidence of lack. I never considered that my expectation that there should be evidence of an afterlife, if there is one, might be unreasonable. How could there be any evidence? I didn’t know anyone who had come back from the dead and I’d never experienced death – what evidence could there be? It was no good looking to science for answers because this was just a method for testing things in the physical world, but who said the afterlife was physical? The truth was that death was this impenetrable wall and for me to claim that there was nothing on the other side was a huge leap of faith. I’d also ignored the reality that there were plenty of people who did claim to have evidence of an afterlife. I dismissed them because it wasn’t the type of evidence that fit in with my world view.
My atheistic convictions blinkered my thinking and gave me a false sense of certainty. I had no problem entertaining ideas of multiple universes because that sounded scientific, but I would get irritated even at the mention of something after death. I felt happy to consider the possibility that there could be other universes out there, even though there was no way that this could be proven, yet when it came to life after death I knew that didn’t exist.
Overcoming My Fear of Death by Embracing Uncertainty
I can now see that it was the uncertainty about death that terrified me more than anything else. I somehow developed the idea that uncertainty is bad, and that I needed to find a path away from it. This misunderstanding took me on a wild goose chase because the life is one huge wonderful mystery, and it can’t be anything else for me. It is not my job to solve the mystery – it is my job to enjoy the show without always being obsessed with what comes next. I’ve fallen in love with the mysterious of it all, and this means that I can embrace the uncertainty. I hope to die feeling like an intrepid explorer going into the unknown, rather than someone who struggles to keep their spirits up by pretending to have all the answers. I’m brave, so I thrive on the uncertainty.
I’m now interested in what people who claim to have experienced the afterlife have to say, but I can’t just take their word for it. I’ve had my own experiences in meditation and during lucid dreaming/astral travel that do seem to suggest a continuation of consciousness, but it is not enough to convince me. I’ve not died so I can’t know for sure.
If I’m honest here, I’ve become much less interested in the “nothingness” view of death because it is not like those who believe this can bring any personal evidence to the table. Lack of evidence is not enough to sway me one way or the other, as I don’t see why there should be evidence. I’m not saying that this view of death is wrong, but there is just no way to ever know. If there is nothing after death the person who believed this does not get to know that they were right, and they can’t communicate with the living to confirm this nothingness.
I will not be surprised to find that my consciousness continues after death, but my current contentment and well-being does not depend on this being true. I plan to avoid that familiar trap of believing that what may be over the next hill is better than what I have now. This is something that I’ve been doing for years, and it means that I’m always pushing the wonderfulness of what is right now away from me.