Dead Ahead

It is difficult for a thoughtful person to get into his fifties without a persistent and lurking awareness of our mortal brevity. At this point in life even those who have been fortunate enough to have been spared frequent doses of calamity have lost a good friend or a family member, and by the half-century mark even the best-cared-for bodies are showing signs of irreversible and accumulating wear. This simple fact — that we die — is, due to the curious malformations of our psyche, something that we either go out of our way to avoid, like the landlady to whom our rent is in arrears, or that we ogle with palpitating, pornographic fascination. It is a focal point of all that we do not understand and cannot conceive. It confronts us not only with the unimaginable prospect of the evaporation of our subjective awareness (though why that should be such a horror, given that it is simply the state we occupied for all the eons preceding our birth, and given also that that which does not exist cannot suffer), but also deepens the mystery of our subjective experience of time.

The crisis is that we are here now, but there will come another “now” when we are not. But that’s wrong, because as far as we can tell, there is no such thing, in the objective, physical world, as now; it is only a subjective feature of our awareness, which means for us there simply can be no “now” in which that awareness does not exist. There is a span of time that our lives occupy — one can mark off spacetime events b and d as our birth and death, and between those events we are alive — but there is nothing about space and time as we understand them that corresponds to the idea of now. Somehow, our subjective awareness seems to illuminate successive slices of our lives’ block of spacetime, one after the other, always moving. But to the physicist, all the slices are just the same; they all simply are. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever been able to answer this simple question: why is now now?

If the flow of time is, as seems to be the case, an illusion, bound somehow to consciousness, then perhaps it is by focusing our attention on the direst consequence of the apparent flow of time — that we die — that we can bind them together, force them into juxtaposition, to give ourselves something stationary to take hold of as we try to resist the current of sleep in which we drift from birth to death: not with panic, or titillation, but with a matter-of-fact appreciation that we have much work to do in a finite span of time, and that the stakes may be high.

At the end of G.I. Gurdjieff’s extraordinary book Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson, Beelzebub, long past the passions of his youth — for which excesses he has spent millennia exiled on Earth, studying the curious, stunted beings who dwell thereupon — is asked by his curious and beloved grandson Hassein what, if anything, would direct the people of Earth onto the path of self-development that is the proper task and duty of all conscious beings. Beelzebub replies that they would have to be reconstituted as follows:

…that every one of these unfortunates, during the process of his existence, should constantly sense and be aware of his own death, as well as of the death of everyone upon which his eyes, or attention, rest.

Only such a sensation and such an awareness could destroy the egoism now so completely crystallized in them that it has swallowed up the whole of their essence, and at the same time uproot that tendency to hate others which flows from it — the tendency that engenders those mutual relationships which are the chief cause of all their abnormalities, unbecoming … and maleficient for them and for the whole of the Universe.

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