Facing my mortality

It’s a fact that I’m going to die someday. No one can deny that we are born, we live, and then we die – that’s how time works for us. This shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone.

For years I was envious of those who truly, deeply believed in some kind of spiritual afterlife. I could never bring myself over to the side of faith; it just didn’t seem logical to me, and those who promoted the concept in my younger years never seemed the better for their connection with spirituality. Eventually, I came to terms with most of my feelings around the issue except for one; the fact that someday, be it sooner or later, I would die.

Light through the trees
There is a light... and it's the sun

It wasn’t the dying that I was uncomfortable with. It was, rather, the same thing that makes me never want to sleep at night – I hate the idea that by sleeping I am somehow missing out on something vitally important or mind-blowingly exciting. I’ve stayed up all night many times in my life. I’ve even had a six-month period in my early twenties when I refused to sleep more than four hours a night. I usually didn’t miss anything, but sometimes fantastic things happened in those dark hours when the rest of the city was sleeping. On the occasions when great things did happen, it only cemented the feelings I had that when I slept I was missing out. On top of that, all of my best creative work happens after eleven p.m.

Death is the great period of missing out on things

Death is like sleep, only permanent, and there are no dreams. Now that I have a daughter, the feeling that I could die and miss out on everything – in her future and our future as a family – is stronger than it has ever been. Mortality becomes a bigger deal when you’re a mom, I think. You want nothing more than to see your child grow, learn, and experience the world. You want to be there to help when you’re needed and to take care of them until they can take care of themselves. The very concept that you could die tomorrow and not be there for them, not see them grow up, is sometimes a devastating one. It can make you more cautious than you were perhaps before you had children. I know it has for me, and for some other parents I’ve talked to about it.

So, like sleep, I didn’t want to die because I don’t want to miss out on anything. For nearly the past three years this has been a weight on my mind – not constant, but a thought that returns unbidden at random times. It’s unsettling, and frustrating, and sometimes makes my heart skip a beat in irrational fear.

I had to come to terms with my mortality

So how can a woman who doesn’t believe in the afterlife come to terms with the fact that her worst fear is missing out on something because she’s dead? Unexpectedly for me, it was through a television show.

A few months ago Adam (the astronomy geek of the family) and I started watching Professor Brian Cox‘s BBC astronomy series Wonders of the Solar System, followed by Wonders of the Universe. It was the first episode of Universe, Destiny, that blindsided me (with Science!) and helped me accept that I will die… and that it’s okay.

Destiny is about time. Brian Cox explains time and entropy in a way that is attainable – a way that I can understand it, even though I’m no scientist, and physics concepts often go way over my head. Watching this show was the first time I actually understood what entropy means – not well enough to explain it to anyone, but well enough that a light switched on in my brain and I finally got it. But that isn’t what helped me accept my mortality.

By the end of the show, Brian has brought you on a journey of time and the universe through his own eyes – and he has no problem expressing his childlike wonder at it all in an infectious way. When he dropped the bomb on us, the viewers, that time is marching forward inexorably, and that it it will end – the entire universe, and everything within it, will cease to exist – it was like I had been hit by lightning. The knowledge that someday, far beyond my own existence and beyond a time I can even imagine, the world, the stars, the galaxies, the universe, and time itself will no longer exist, suddenly became the most important piece of knowledge I had ever understood.

I sat in stunned silence after the show had ended, contemplating just what that meant.

I can’t miss out on something that doesn’t exist

When I die, I won’t exist anymore. But someday neither will anything else. Although I can understand why that might terrify some people, I’ve discovered that it’s the most comforting thought I have ever experienced.