‘I don’t want to go.’ Words that still have the power to break my heart, uttered by David’s Tennant’s incarnation of the main character on Doctor Who, moments before he departed amidst an extraordinary indoor fireworks display.
They resonate quite strongly.
When I was a Christian, I’m not sure I ever truly believed in an afterlife. Not deep down. Sometimes if I wished really hard and employed the strongest power of my imagination, I could picture myself waking up in some heavenly existence amidst a crowd of people in bathrobes. But ultimately the idea that there was a future life in which everything wrong with this world would be magically corrected just seemed too good to be true; or too bad, depending on whether you made the list.
Nonetheless, the fact that the afterlife was a part of the Christian creed that I unwittingly signed up to from birth at least allowed me space to avoid addressing thoughts about the end head-on. What will happen when I die? I’ll go onto whatever the next chapter is I suppose, no point dwelling on it. I reserved my doubts, and it often struck me as odd that if Christians truly believed that a blissful new creation would await them after death, most decided to stick around here as long as possible. I never really bought the ‘God has more work for me to do in this lifetime’ response. I have a hunch that deep down, many Christians harbour doubts that anything awaits them beyond the grave.
But whatever your deeper convictions, it is a comforting belief to assent to on some level. I think that the fear of death is not only a major factor in why people hold onto their religious beliefs, but possibly something that drove them there in the first place. And not only concern for their own mortality, but also for that of their loved ones. The idea of being separated from someone you hold dear is profoundly painful, but if you’re told that you will rise up and meet again one day, you may want so strongly for that to be true that you start to believe it.
That comfort has gone for me now.
In the cold light of day, it seems clear that once you’ve passed your sell-by date, that’s it. And someone throwing you into a freezer isn’t going to prolong your days. That terrifies me for a few reasons.
Primarily, I’m worried about leaving before my time. David Tennant’s words once again ring in my ears: ‘I could have done so much more. So much more!’ I have a number of dreams and aspirations for the future: hopes for a career and a family, people and places to experience, learning more about the wonders of the world around me. The idea that the opportunity may be taken away from me because of a terrible accident or a fatal illness chills me. It is a consolation that if I make it to my eighties, I will at least have had the chance at all of this, whether or not I lived out my full potential. Once my mind and body start to wear away, I hope that my firm grip on life may loosen voluntarily.
Even so, I’m not sure how gentle I will go into that good night.
I’m a collector, you see. The emergence of Netflix has made a real dent in DVD sales, but before it became the giant that it is now, I was adding to my growing collection of box sets with each passing year. If I liked a series, I wanted to own it. All of it. I hoped that my collection of TV shows would accompany me into old age, and perhaps even be buried along with me as the Pharaohs did with their riches. Though every scratch on a disc brought the fresh reminder that nothing lasts forever.
But it’s not just DVDs I collect, it’s relationships, skills, experiences, knowledge. As I journey through life, I accumulate all of these things around me, but they’re not only external, they’re a part of me. In a very real sense, they are me. It’s my hope that I become a richer person because of what I learn and do. In my old age, even if I struggle to advance on my journey, I’d like to think that I can get some pleasure from looking back over where I’ve trodden and who I’d become.
Death takes that away from you. It doesn’t give you the chance to look back or forward. Whether you’ve had a life of luxury or poverty, you ultimately end up at the same place without the faintest recollection of what happened. Your collection turns to dust.
This led me to think: if all I do comes to nothing, why do I bother doing anything?
The answer of course is, because that’s life.
Too often we try to live in any moment except where we are now. We can look back with longing and regret, or we may look forward with hope and anxiety, but we’re never truly in those places. We can’t change the past, and the future is out of our control. Our acting stage is the present. All that we’re aware of takes place in this very moment. And that’s why it matters what we do, because we can’t escape it, and we shouldn’t want to.
The story must end, and it will end the same for us all, but that shouldn’t diminish the importance of living.
I’ve enjoyed the reflections of humanist chaplain, Bart Campolo, on this subject. He recalls a luxurious vacation which he and his family went on, and the profound upset he experienced towards the end as he realised that it was nearly over. But his daughter reprimanded him. What is the best way to spend the last few days of your holiday, complaining that you have to leave, or running to the beach and squeezing the most out of the time that you can?
I also wonder whether a holiday would be quite so enjoyable if it went on forever. Is not the fact that you know it will end one element which makes it so uniquely enjoyable? This is a question I often ponder in relation to the afterlife. Even if it were as good as it’s often made made out to be, would it retain its wonder after the first ten years? Or hundred? Or thousand? And that’s barely scratching the surface of eternity. I often dream of sipping margaritas on the beach with a good book, but I know that in reality I’d be bored within days.
This was also an idea explored in The Good Place. When the protagonists finally arrived in paradise, they were shocked to find the greatest minds had turned sluggish, and everyone was in a zombie-like state. It turns out that the prospect of eternity takes away any real motivation. The solution? An opt-out clause. They created a door through which you could walk and never return. Knowing that existence could one day come to an end brought back its value to the heavenly inhabitants; suddenly life had its spark back. I think that’s what I would prefer in an ideal world: some extra years in the prime of life. Eternity feels like a bit of an overkill.
Whether you’ve had the best of times or the worst of times, the story must end, and it will end the same for us all, but that shouldn’t diminish the importance of living.
There’s another reason that death wasn’t a huge factor for much of my time as a Christian; I was never really that sold on life. I would like to be clear that I’ve never been suicidal. There are so many people in the world who are in truly tragic circumstances, and I would never want to diminish the seriousness of that by equating my experience with theirs. However, there was a considerable time during which my future looked relatively bleak. I found myself without any excitement for what was to come.
In honesty, a large part of this was to do with coming out. Being gay in the church is not an easy position to be in; even if the community you’re a part of is supportive and loving, you can’t escape the battle that’s going on inside. For a time I was convinced that the only way I could live faithfully was by perpetual singleness, and yet the love that I was assured I would receive from my heavenly father was not forthcoming. Facing the idea that I would never know any relational intimacy, working for the institution which inflicted this upon me - and the God who remained distant in my struggle - and unable to find a firm grasp on anything true, it didn’t seem a great problem if that were all swept away. Take it, see if I care.
It’s only since leaving behind the shackles of unsubstantiated faith that my hope for the future has been restored. But when this arose, so did the fear that it would be taken away.
You could look at this in two ways: live without optimism and survive through apathy and non-attachment; or embrace the fear, recognizing it as the price of hope. Personally, I’ll take the latter. I can manage the anxiety about what’s ahead if it means that I have something worth caring about.
Within all of this lies the great danger of becoming insular, shouting why me? up at the heavens. I believe that one of our greatest human needs is feeling part of something greater than ourselves. This is something that religion can supply very well, sketching out a meta-narrative which comes packed with objective purpose and meaning. Narratives provide the framework in which we live our lives, and they are necessary for us to function, whether they’re actually true or not.
Unfortunately, once you stop believing that your narrative is true, its power to help you through the day disappears, and you find yourself in the midst of a chaotic and uncaring world, unsure how to make sense of your place in the world.
I can manage the anxiety about what’s ahead if it means that I have something worth caring about.
Forming a new narrative is the challenge of anyone who has left behind their religious faith, and it can be both a great joy and an immense responsibility. Critics often claim that for the non-believer, ‘anything goes’, and this therefore gives them license to act selfishly in whatever way they want. Such a perspective usually comes from a faith tradition which has a particularly low view of humanity, and while I don’t deny that human nature has its all too obvious dark side, I’m not ready to consign our species to the moral dustbin just yet. In fact, many secular societies around the world have proven that society can still function without God.
What has this got to do with death? What a morbid question! But, I suppose relevant to this post. The fact is, how you view death will depend largely on your meta-narrative. If you truly believe that anything goes, and life is about self-advancement, then death is going to serve as a pretty damning conclusion to your story. However, it’s possible to construct a framework in which death does not have the last say.
You see, after you die, the world carries on spinning, and the majority of its inhabitants will be none the wiser to the immense loss which just took place. After all, as you’ve been reading this, around six hundred people have ceased to be, but over a thousand newborns have seen the outside world for the first time. Put aside your fears about unsustainable population growth for a moment, and consider just how remarkable that is. It’s their turn now.
The Buddhist worldview is particularly helpful in allowing us to understand our place within the never-ending cycle of birth and death. Ultimately, there is no permanent, independent self. All that we are was at one time something else. Our earliest ancestors are the stars which burned billions of years ago; we’re the ultimate recycling programme. But aside from our physical makeup, the way that we interact with the world is no less transitory. We are who we are on account of our upbringing, our hometown, our experiences, our relationships; we are moulded by the world around us, and we mould it in turn. The boundary between self and other never existed. We’re all ever-changing bundles of stuff.
When we die, we’re never truly gone, a part of us remains. Our effects can still be felt. In a physical sense, our body will return to the earth from which it came, but perhaps more important is the effect that we will have had on the people around us. Our behaviour, our words, what we stood for - all of this will have added to someone else’s bundle. But will this be for better or worse?
Parents are keenly aware of this. When their newborn arrives into the world, alongside the awe and love comes the fear: I hope I don’t mess this little guy up. Tragically, some do. But many don’t. This is perhaps a part of the reason that I’m training as a teacher. Yes, teenagers are a fun age group to work with, and religion is a subject which I find fascinating, but it may be that on a deeper level, it is a significant way in which I can contribute to the world; after I’m gone, my influence can live on through hundreds if not thousands of others. I just hope that’s a good thing.
Admittedly, there’s still a selfish part of me which is sad not to see my legacy. I think we all want to know the impact our lives will have on others. Have you never been curious as to how your funeral would look? Who will turn up? What will they say? The good news is that we can see some impact in our lifetime, many kind words and support will bear immediate fruit, but at other times it’s just a fact of life that we plant the seed and trust that it will grow.
All of this does not necessarily make the end any easier, and it certainly doesn’t provide a fully satisfying conclusion to our existential anxieties. But then, I gave up my addiction to certainty and satisfaction a long time ago. I simply hope that this may provide some helpful thoughts to those for whom, like me, mortality can get the better of us.
As great as the love is that I have for David Tennant, I feel that his successor departed with a more optimistic message: ‘We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one.’
The regeneration effect on the main picture was the artistry of the wonderful Molly Baldwin. You can see some of her work on Instagram at @mollyaliceart