Deep thoughts and feelings about death and life

One of the great, great things about this digital transformation we’re going through is the amazing increase in interactivity. People can be in touch with others who are literally on the other side of the globe, in a number of ways.
Which brings me, again, to Gene Weingarten. He and other people who write for the Washington Post do their part for the cause of interactivity by communicating regularly with readers and fans and others online in live chats. As one of our leading humorists, Gene usually cracks wise about the chosen topic of the day (today’s was the meaning of God, and life, and death). But as one of our best writers, he also thinks deeply and seriously about the most important and sensitive things imaginable. I had to pass on his answer to this person:

Question: Taking this poll [about life, death, and God] was interesting for me because I recently had a recurrence of the cancer I beat last year and now it turns out that it’s likely terminal. I’m 31 years old. I was never baptized, not raised in a religious home, etc. And I still don’t know what to believe, even when confronted with my impending death at a time when I was not expecting it. I used to think people who turned to religion as they were dying were copping out, but I’m starting to understand it a little better now. But I still don’t know what, if anything, to believe.

GENE WEINGARTEN : When I was 40, I was where you were: Facing likely death, and doing it as an atheist.

In my case, I tried to make myself feel better any way I could. I did research, learned that in the year 1012, the average life expectancy was 29! I was already waay ahead of the game! I started reading the obituaries, and took solace from anyone who died younger than me. It’s gruesome, but a school bus crash filled me with joy!

I noticed with amusement the fact that when your friends think you are dying, they treat you differently, like you were Socrates, as though impending death imbues a person with some sort of infinite wisdom and knowledge of the Truth, as opposed to, you know, blind panic. I abused this fact. I made shallow statements that sounded profound, then laughed until my friends did, too. Then I wrote a book about how funny death was. The final chapter was titled: “Is Death A Laughing Matter? Of Corpse Not!”

In short, I dealt with it all like a smartass. We are what we are. Don’t change who you are.

But I do have some helpful advice for you, too.

There’s some small validity in that Socrates notion. Nothing is “copping out.” It is the nature of life, and the signal strength of the human animal, to adjust our thinking as we learn new things. You are, philosophically, in a fertile place to learn. You are being forced to face great questions earlier than most of us do. Use that opportunity wisely. If it leads you to faith, that is not a bad thing, nor is it, necessarily, an accommodation with yourself — a concession to fear. It can represent a higher state of philosophical awareness.

And lastly, I want to tell you that I am still here, 20 years later. Doctors are not always right. And the philosophical contortions I went through 20 years ago have helped me better order my life since. In retrospect, I feel as though I’d been given a gift. You may be, too.

– May 24, 2011 9:21 AM