Every so often I get a reminder of how bad existence in this world can really get. A common theme is a depiction of someone burning to death. Today it was a film clip of someone caught in the blast of a nuclear explosion. Apparently, if you’re a certain distance from the centre, you don’t get vaporised, but it’s so hot that everything around you catches on fire – your hair, your clothes, everything. Now obviously this was played up for dramatic effect, but the level of agony, terror, and sheer animal desperation depicted on this character’s face rang true.
Every time I come across something like that, I find myself thinking; ‘What’s that like? What’s it like to be in that kind of desperate state? Surely it’s better to end your life now, rather than continue to face the risk of that kind of experience?’
Now obviously, the chances of dying in a nuclear blast are currently remote. The most common causes of death in the west are heart attack and stroke – effects of age (or morbid obesity.) I would expect a fair degree of warning before that kind of health problem was close – time enough to check out on my own terms. Likewise with cancer, which sounds like a potentially wretched way to die – plenty of time to choose my end.
But people do die, in violent accidents, all the time. The longer one lives, the greater the chance that it’s you in that car crash, or trapped in the burning building, or being savaged to death by a hamster with a vendetta.
And that’s not to mention the potential for future global instability. The peace we enjoy in the west is a historical blip. War is the norm for human society. On a planet with a rapidly expanding population, with rapidly diminishing environmental capacity, and tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, what are the chances that things don’t kick off sooner or later? What happens when food supplies collapse in Russia, or China, or India? Do they just accept that and let their people starve, or do they start eyeing up their neighbours? And if that happens, how long before someone pushes a big red button?
My instinctive reaction to all this perceived threat is to want to peace out, ASAP. It seems like I’m a fearful, cowardly person. I’m either more aware of the potential for suffering than most, or I’m more averse to it, or I value life less. But to me, much of the time, nothing in this world seems worth facing that kind of extreme, desperate experience. Life isn’t worth the risk.
The problem with that is that at least part of me believes in consciousness continuing beyond death. And I have an extremely guilty conscience. I’m terrified of having to face judgement, or answer for what I’ve done in life. A significant part of me believes I deserve punishment. And what punishment does monotheism offer? Burning, for eternity, in unending fire.
Now, rationally, this doesn’t seem likely to me. Supposing conscious experience can somehow transcend the death of the brain, it doesn’t make much sense to me that even the worst people would just be endlessly tortured. What possible purpose would that achieve? But then I’m clearly not someone orientated toward existential justice.
Unfortunately, I just don’t have confidence in my rationality, in my capacity to accurately assess reality. I have this deep and abiding dread of the other shoe dropping, of my crimes finally catching up with me, and my worldview proving to be a delusion.
So I’ve managed to trap myself in this strange psychological prison. Life is terrible, because of the enormous capacity for extreme suffering. But death is also terrible, because it exposes me to unknown quantities of negative experience in the great beyond. Clever me.