What Happens When We Die?
I was with my uncle yesterday – he loves to talk. We got chatting about work initially then the conversation moved to the question; what happens when we die?
He's in his late sixties I think. By no means old, but like my parents he believes it to be so.
He lives alone and although his family are closeby, in the silence of his privacy he finds himself contemplating his departure.
I think in our culture, as soon as grandchildren come alone we begin to feel our time is up.
Why is that?
I've written before on this subject, it really grabs my interest. However, all conversation is of course speculative given that nobody, that I know at least, as come back to tell me all about it.
I believe that even if some personality I was familiar with here did manage to return and tell me all about it, their story would be unique. Just like each of our stories here are unique the death experience I expect to be just so.
In this world of stuff and people everyone has a very specific experience. No two lives are the same.
There can be of course similarities and common ground in experience but to believe that their is an objective reality outside our individual experience is naive to me.
I say that with greatest respect because whatever you feel is real, is real. The individual experience is totally valid.
Who Am I?
I reckon before we begin to ask the question what happens when we die?, we've got to broach the subject of concept of self.
Who or what is the self? Who am I? When did I begin and when will I end? Is time real? Why am I here and what's the purpose of all this experience if it simply ceases to exist when I do?
What am I?
For me it's all the same question and a very difficult one to explain, even if we hold a concept of the answer. Personally I have no words to explain it.
So I won't try. I'll just bang on here for a bit and see what comes out.
In fact, it may be more helpful to say what I am not, what it is not, rather that what me or it is. “Sigh” we could go on and on about this you know…
However, let's proceed.
So I arrived to Pat's place out in the countryside. It's a beautiful isolated place in county Meath, off the main road down a country lane that winds narrowly to his house on the T junction.
He is having a BBQ for family and I was there to hook up a water feature and some lights for him in the backyard (field behind his house).
Pat has endured his fair share of life challenges and, to me, appears to have come out the other side in very good shape. I've a lot of respect for him given what he has lived.
Over A Cup Of Tea
I started work as soon as I arrived. The grass was long and wet and I thought, fuck it, I should have worn my boots.
It was a small job that would take me about 15 mins to complete.
I could see Pat in his kitchen through the big window that faced me. He held up a cup in his right hand signifying chats, so I finished the connections and went inside.
We got talking about work, building a business and the challenges tradespeople face.
He's been doing his own thing since he was a young man and is still at it. He probably started at the same age I did so we have a lot in common. These days we do some work together.
He made some tea and we sat talking for about 30 mins.
We spoke about life experience, depression, anxiety, hiring people, pricing work and the challenges of keeping staff busy when there's a lull in workload.
It's a fine balancing act.
One minute you're flat out busy, the next you're not and have staff that you don't want to lose. So in the quiet times we make up work for them or we take on jobs that don't pay just to keep the good people we've hired.
But that's a drain on resources and can get us into cashflow trouble. Stress and anxiety creep in.
I've been there, and so has he.
Lying Awake At Night
We exchanged stories of the bad old days. I told him I was studying psychology at night and we got onto the subject of councillors and how the best one's are the one's who've walked the road you've walked.
We agreed that the former sufferers of depression and anxiety, the former drug addicts and alcoholics, the people who know your experience are far better positioned to offer you counsel than those with the academic background and subsequent Phd.
Both are probably ideal.
I won't take the liberty of going into details of Pat's life experience because it's not my place, but I can touch on mine.
Back in my bad old days of 2007 to 2015 I'd lie awake at night worrying about money. It was a horrible place to be, but I had no choice.
I told Pat how everyone I knew, all my friends disappeared. Or maybe it was me who disappeared. Or maybe it was both.
“You needed to do that on your own”, he said.
It was not my friends fault. It was not their job to be their for me, I needed to be alone in that time because I needed to figure out my own shit.
A friend once asked me if I ever contemplated suicide.
Although I answered him respectfully I did find it remarkable that I would be asked that. If I was asked that by one person then I'd say many others were thinking it. Possibly discussing it.
So were they waiting to find me hanging from the rafters before the question would come out?
Did I seem together enough then, to be asked the question without the fear of approaching the subject in the reality of it actually having transpired?
This is not a criticism, rather it's a attempt on my part to understand the concept held by others of another's personal crisis.
The Death Question
Subsequent to the depression and anxiety question we began to talk about death and the afterlife, if there is indeed one.
I could see Pat becoming slightly uncomfortable with the discussion.
“So do you think that when your body dies, when the physical you that you identify with dies, when whatever animates you leaves, that you cease to exist?” I asked him.
“Yeah, that's it. Lights out”.
“But that's not an experience” I said.
“I dunno, but it just seems to me to be impossible that I will exist after I die”, he said.
Although I could hear what he said, I could sense in him that something that didn't quite believe it. Or maybe didn't want t believe it.
“Me and a friend of mine had a similar conversation about death”, I said. “When I look at my children I said, and feel the love for them that I have, call it love, I don't know what it is exactly, but I feel it, I can not accept that what I feel will cease to exist”.
“I have had too many experiences that have told me otherwise”, I said. “Like the time I bought the house I now live in, or the time John Denver played on a friends phone the day after my wife and I cremated the baby we lost”
I went on to tell him these two stories.
Something Bigger Than Us
“There's something bigger and broader than us at work here”, I said.
“Our nervous system is only capable of perceiving a very narrow bandwidth of information. We see, hear, taste, touch and feel what we do but there is an infinite array of data that we can never be exposed to in this physical life experience”.
“Sure, we can build machines that can read some of this information but we can never witness it, only see the apparent effects of it and only to a very finite degree”.
“There's something bigger going on here”, I said. It's not what religion says although there is some truth at the base of all that. It's just that it has become very distorted”.
“Fucking religion, that's only there because fuckers want to control people” said Pat.
Religion ruled the state here in Ireland from independence from Britain, or even arguably before that, until say the 1980s. when people began to wake up to the Catholic strangle on our society.
As such the older generations are very much influenced by what they were taught in schools about right, wrong, good and bad.
In all of that, the idea of death, the so called afterlife, worthiness and self image is a little distorted.
I'm not suggesting that my idea of myself is perfect, there's no such thing in fact. That idea is always expanding and will never be complete.
So What About Death?
Well, it's whatever you make it.
Rather than fear it or have any kind of negative anticipation of it, I am very curious about it. I want to know what's out there, I want to know what's beyond this experience.
It may sound strange but I am looking forward to it although my sense is that I'll be around for quite a while. I'm not sure why I feel it that way but I've felt it since I was a young man.
Maybe I've other stuff to make and figure out here.
Whatever happens I've managed to build a deeper understanding of myself by virtue of the road I've walked and I wouldn't change a thing.
When death comes it comes and when it does I'll welcome it.
For now I'll continue to do my thing whatever way I choose and all those who have contrary opinions and requirements of me can fuck off respectfully.
Thanks for the conversation Pat.