Given what we know today

Let’s get right down to it: I have been obsessing about death. No particular reason other than just being alive, and that this life is bookended by birth and death. Birth I’ve done; death is still on the menu. So I obsess, I fear, I catastrophise, I project. I think about all kinds of scenarios, but I cannot quite trace them all the way to their logical ends.

Was it Roosevelt who said “there is nothing to fear but fear itself”? I saw this today, felt it, contemplating my own mortality. What was this fleeting ghost of a feeling? When I queried myself, really pushed, to understand what exactly was so fearsome, so crushing, it was the fear of feeling fear, fear of uncontrollable anxiety. I was actually afraid that it would be the thing without an end. As if anything lasted forever.

What am I really afraid of? My cosmology envisions a grinding halt, the flicking of the body’s off switch, a dissolution of proteins, nucleic acids, organelles into their components, a recycling of amino acids, bases, cholesterol molecules, an enzymatic holocaust sowing the seeds of progeny. Then I realized what was worrying me: consciousness, I am obsessed with my own consciousness. What about it? I know my molecules, atoms, subatomic particles will survive and reconstitute. But what about my consciousness? And why does it matter so much? Why do we want consciousness to go on in perpetuity, like some Faustian contract? Would we want Trump’s consciousness to persist? Hitler’s? Stalin’s?

This being a uniquely human fear, animals seem to ignore the whole conundrum, although how would we know if they weren’t? We obsess and perseverate. We make up stories — heaven, hell, God, devil, saints, cherubim, seraphim, entire pantheons of mythical creatures to help us prop up our need to believe in our own infinity. Heaven and hell are carrot and stick, the price for basking in this laudanum-infused illusion. Just like rats in a maze, it’s primitive operant conditioning, sugar cubes and electricity, heaven and hell, blessed and damned, all biologically determined.

And reincarnation? Another myth I can neither prove nor disprove. As things stand today, as a scientific theory it is decidedly uninteresting; as a philosophy it is seductive but far-fetched. “Given what we know so far…” This should preface any belief, any conjecture, given the state of the knowledge to date. This is true for climate change, origins of the universe, fracking and cancer — given what we know now, I believe… Tattoo this on your forearm and chant it every night before you sleep. The ultimate prayer, a universal liturgy, “given what we know now, I believe…”

I can fantasize, make up parallel universes, alternate destinies for my soul. Whatever follows my last breath should not concern me now. It will be either nothingness, which is the opposite of bothersome, or perhaps my consciousness will join that universal consciousness that people on acid feel, the warm fuzzy belonging that fuels love and war. Or perhaps some acellular incarnation of myself will finally be able to frolic in all ten dimensions at the same time, reach out and touch the edge of space-time with its invisible fingers and weep at the reflection of God. Given what we know today, I believe…

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