On the questions of mortality and moving on….

A couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing for my recent course “Why I Am Not a Christian,” I was reminded of one of my favorite modern novels, The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, which won the Booker Prize in 2011.  What a terrific book.  Short but completely compelling.  Beautifully written.  Moving.   Thought provoking.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 I won’t give up the plot, but, well, it’s about life, death, getting older, memory, and remorse.

Two lines really struck me.   The first is spoken by one of the characters in a history class in school in his upper sixth (that’s the year English students prepare for university; it’s a lot more rigorous than our senior years in high school) (mine anyway; and I went to an unusually good high school!).   When asked, at the end of the term, what history is (looking back at all they had studied), he responds:  “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Brilliant.  It ties closely into the plot – although in some ways you don’t realize it till the very end of the book, virtually the last page.   But it’s an insightful comment about even what it is I do, with the distant past, where the documentation is thoroughly inadequate, and even this is based on memories that are fully imperfect.   Out of that we try to create the certainties of what happened.  Fat chance, when you think about it.   It’s hard enough to recreate what happened 20-30-40 years ago.  As this book shows in a gut-wrenching way.

The second line took my breath away and I reread it about ten times.   The main character has just called his 32-year old daughter before going on a vacation for five days to Mallorca, making sure he got in touch and left on a good note in case something should happen  to him on the trip, and it makes him think how much more important that would be before one’s “final” trip.  So, he reflects: “And if this is how we behave before a five-night winter break in Mallorca, then why should there not be a broader process at work towards the end of life, as that final journey – the motorized trundle through the crematorium’s curtains – approaches?”

Wow–“the motorized trundle through the crematorium’s curtains.”  What really wrenched my attention was the thought that one sometimes has:  that’s really going to happen.  There will be a time when my body will be sent to the incinerator, and I am no more.  My body will be burned (or if you prefer the long-term approach, it will eventually decay; and if it doesn’t decay, it’ll be incinerated anyway when the sun blows up).  And life will go on anyway (well, until the sun blows up).  People will mourn.  People will get on with their lives.  The sun will still rise.  Sports will still be played.  The storms will still come.  Nations will rise and fall.  Our children will grow old and die.  And then their children.  And then their grandchildren.  And soon, no matter how important or unimportant we seem to be to the world, we will be completely forgotten.  And then *that* generation will come and go.  And so it will happen.  It happened to our parents; to our grandparents; to our great-grandparents; to …. all the way back.  And it will happen to us, each of us, individually, one at a time.  It will happen to me, with  the motorized trundle through the crematorium’s curtains.

For me, these thoughts completely relativize everything I do.  And they make me appreciate the good things I have and the life that I lead, life itself, so precious to me.  They don’t make me despair or turn nihilist.  They make me love existence and want to do more to help others love it.

But how ’bout you?  What do you think?

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2023-07-26T08:59:35-04:00August 2nd, 2023|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

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  1. James Williams August 2, 2023 at 6:40 am

    When it comes to these things each man has as much understanding as the next, no matter how much learning or how little, no matter how much wealth or how little, no matter how many social and political connections or how little and whatever religious beliefs (even atheists have them). Death is the great equaliser and that is its consolation. Our achievements and our failures, our griefs and our joys, our crimes and our losses all pale down to a beautiful stillness. Thank God.

    • Judith August 4, 2023 at 10:07 am

      I loved reading this! Thank you.

    • bengrubb August 6, 2023 at 7:37 pm

      but Bart just said it DOESN’T make him nihlist….

  2. Judith August 2, 2023 at 6:54 am

    The last lines of Bryant’s Thanatopsis come to mind:
    So live, that when that final summons comes to join the innumerable caravan which moves to that mysterious realm where each shall take his chamber in the silent halls of death, thou go not, like the quarry slave at night, scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave like one who wraps the draping of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams.

    • BillJames August 25, 2023 at 12:22 pm

      I re-read Thanatopsis about once a month as I approach my 70th birthday. That coda (which he added later) was used for my Dad’s memorial service,

  3. petfield August 2, 2023 at 7:38 am

    Even though I’m 35, I do think about these matters quite frequently. I too feel a deep gratitude for being so unbelievably lucky to have been a part of existence; at the same time, though, a certain nihilistic feeling does penetrate my soul. I think it’s vital that I keep these two opposing feelings in harmony with one another and the way to achieve that is by genuinely trying to be a better person myself, with no bitterness towards other people.

  4. flshrP August 2, 2023 at 8:03 am

    In the past three years, we buried my daughter-in-law’s mother, another daughter-in-law’s father, and the ex-wife and mother of my three children. I’ll be 82 in a few months and am the oldest member of my immediate family.

    The way I look at it, one second you’re alive and the next second you’re dead, to paraphrase Epicurus:

    “Death is nothing to us. When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness.”

    • bengrubb August 6, 2023 at 7:54 pm

      perhaps not so much the fear of what’s after….for my mom she became vividly conscious of all that’s about to be lost and all she can never experience (new grandchild). No amount of mental gymnastics could sooth that. We were summoned 3 times by people who watch people die for a living—3 times she came back. Took 8 months! What a precious 8 months. She did not realize she was mortal even though she helped her own mom and dad die. That very slow death process was a wonderful gift to her and us…a little painful too.

  5. jachandler August 2, 2023 at 10:04 am

    Bought the book. And on a related note (how long do you fight that cancer, etc.) , I recommend “Being Mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end.” Atul Gawande.

  6. saavoss August 2, 2023 at 10:13 am

    What do I think? Two things …
    1.) I gotta read that book!
    2.) I’m going through a “crisis of faith” as they say. I’m starting to view death as the end of existence. No heaven or hell, no reward or punishment. Just the end. If anything, the energy that moves oour bodies during life will return & be reabsorbed into the energy that moves the planets … but “energy” isn’t conscious life with memory. Energy exists but it isn’t alive. Maybe a spark of that energy will someday break off to move another body in another lifetime, I will never know … and neither will that future body.

  7. blclaassen August 2, 2023 at 10:57 am

    Bart, your final paragraph sums it up for me as well and is one of the finest “gifts” of discovering a life free of religion. Pascal’s wager comes to mind. I remember someone saying that, even if God doesn’t exist and I have led a pious life of belief, then still – nothing is lost. The retort being: Yes it is. You have lived your one and only lifetime restricted in subservience to a non-existent supernatural being. You have lost everything. Since my own escape from the church, life is infinitely more interesting, more precious, and has made me acutely more appreciative of each moment.

  8. roger August 2, 2023 at 11:38 am

    If you continued to live nothing you know and love now would exist and we would all continually change. We belong in our time and place which makes us who we are.You can’t have Carey Grant or Vince Lombardi or Abraham Lincoln in the future. And if you didn’t die by presumably becoming immortal and the universe was eternal a life to infinity? YIKES!

  9. JTShaw August 2, 2023 at 12:14 pm

    Such a coincidence to read this post within an hour of ordering this book for our library:

    Dean Rickles, “Life Is Short: An Appropriately Brief Guide to Making It More Meaningful” (Princeton University Press, 2022).

    He explicitly credits Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life” (circa 55 CE) in his ruminations.

    The prospect of death can prompt us to make more of our lives. It can add urgency to our ethics and our search for justice. It can punctuate the importance of loving relationships; as Jason Isbell sings, “maybe time running out is a gift.”

  10. John.Feldmann August 2, 2023 at 2:07 pm

    Coming from a psychoanalytic approach, it is intriguing to me why so many people seem attached to what happens after they are dead and gone, the end of phenomenological experience (let us bracket the possibility of an afterlife). Your death is your limit, but people worry about the ultimate fate of the universe, for example, whether they are religious or non-religious. We cannot even imagine the billions of years before that will happen and yet it keeps us up in the middle of the night. Whether God exists, whether theist or atheist, human beings are peculiar creatures, who are attached to final things, to an eschatology. We are creatures obsessed with a phantasy of this eschatology. The interesting part for me is not whether our Sein-zum-Tode (being-towards-death from Heidegger) is life-affirming or nihilistic in some objective sense, but how people create their own subjectivity around this phantasy.

  11. fishician August 2, 2023 at 2:09 pm

    No cremation for me. I want to think my existence contributed something to the world, so I’ll either donate my body to science, or have it incorporated into fertilizer (green burial). Better yet, if legal, I want to be freeze-dried and fed to the fish – they deserve their revenge!

  12. RonaldTaska August 2, 2023 at 3:47 pm

    Bad timing. I am in the process of helping my wife learn to slide her foot a few inches at a time, and then make it to the bathroom, and then ride in a wheelchair. and then walk with a walker, and then walk with a cane, and then walk without a cane following a severely fractured femur. To get to take care of the woman I have loved since I met her in a prayer room at the age of 15, I had to check her out AMA with a doctor critically attacking me (I am also a doctor) at a hospital where I used to work because I wanted to take care of her at home (I know what she likes to eat and what she likes to watch on tv) rather than having her stay in what was a Covid infected nursing home at the time. Somehow, the doctor said I did not know what I was doing and then a friend died of Covid at the same nursing home, so I stopped caring what the doctor thought. Anyway, the sun blowing up, etc. does not sound very upbeat just now.

    • BDEhrman August 4, 2023 at 6:21 am

      Well done! You are living a life of love and, as you know far better than most of us, not every doctor gets it….

    • Judith August 5, 2023 at 8:59 am

      I’m wishing I were a good friend or neighbor. Then I could help you! South Carolina is too far away:-(

  13. stevenpounders August 2, 2023 at 3:52 pm

    I agree completely. There is a common banal sentiment expressed by a certain type of theist (William Lane Craig comes to mind) that goes something like this: “If there is no God and no afterlife, then our existence is ultimately meaningless”.

    First of all, death makes life incredibly precious. Life is wonderful, and because it’s all we have, we want to treasure it and make the most of it.

    Secondly, it is a very narrow view that considers the ephemeral to be meaningless. Not so. In a very real sense, the past is gone, the future is unknown (except for death), and so the present moment is the most important one. And if you see time as simply one dimension of the larger universe, then we will always have this moment – it is timeless.

  14. MeridaGOround August 2, 2023 at 5:38 pm

    St Paul said it well: “I die daily.” 1Cor15:31b

  15. Lev August 3, 2023 at 6:44 am

    Dear Bart,

    I really like how your sense of mortality has inspired you to “love existence and want to do more to help others love it.” That’s a laudable attitude.

    I recently watched a BBC series on how life originated on Earth (conveniently entitled ‘Earth’). It’s a fascinating look at how much life has rapidly expanded and contracted over billions of years, depending on atmospheric conditions, ice ages, and meteor strikes.

    What really struck me was just how much life has already expired on this planet, not just the types of species (dinosaurs etc.), but the sheer quantity of life that simply does not exist any longer. It’s impossible to measure, but I would guess only a tiny fraction of all life that ever existed currently does, and one day we will join the expired, and others will look back.

    If we then take a step back and imagine the quantity of life that is theoretically supported elsewhere in the universe, then the numbers become mind-boggling. By some miracle of chance, we flicker into existence for a brief moment to observe the universe and experience life before passing on – I suppose the question is what we do with that time.

  16. sabramuk August 3, 2023 at 12:59 pm

    It’s hard not to marvel at life itself; fleeting, evanescent and unstable. There’s a constant sense of that in the Psalms. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream/Bears all its sons away/They fly, forgotten as a dream/Dies at the opening day” (Ps. 90, paraphrased in “O God, our help in ages past”). I think there is consolation in the fact it does go on and that we have, however well or otherwise, played our part. We can recognise the “types” of our fellow creatures in Shakespeare and it’s amusing to muse on whether one is a Falstaff, or a Justice Shallow, or some other such person. Life, that bemusing gift, might happily end in amusement at its comedies and tragedies.

  17. Stephen August 3, 2023 at 2:46 pm

    I rather favor Ray Bradbury’s idea that after death we should get to return for a year every hundred years. A year would be just about long enough to get “caught up”. I wonder though, how many times would we return until we decided we didn’t want to come back anymore? Either because the world had become so unfathomable – or so terrible.

    • BDEhrman August 4, 2023 at 6:26 am

      And hten when the sun explodes, it’s all over anyway…. But as for me, I’d love to have a shot at it. Though I might opt for every 50 years so I could make at least some sense of what it was now in relation to what was….

    • BDEhrman August 4, 2023 at 6:26 am

      And hten when the sun explodes, it’s all over anyway…. But as for me, I’d love to have a shot at it. Though I might opt for every 50 years so I could make at least some sense of what it was now in relation to what was….

  18. flcombs August 3, 2023 at 4:20 pm

    I like your take on it. I’ve always thought that if everyone tried to leave the world a better place as their abilities and resources allowed, what a better world it would be. I got my own impression of the world as a teenager doing search and rescue especially missing airplanes and occasionally finding a crash. At an early one I was focused on the remains of four people two of us just found in a remote mountain area and thinking how tragic (skipping their story details). I was suddenly distracted by a squirrel running through and then saw birds and other life just going about their business. It was a literal in your face lesson that no matter what the world keeps turning and tragedy is mainly overlooked by the world or soon forgotten. Even I went back to high school the next day, football practice etc. You have to get past the ugly and focus on the good, enjoying and appreciating others, and making things better, especially where it involves others. 🙂

  19. Ruby August 3, 2023 at 4:56 pm

    My sister just died so death is on my brain. She and her husband were on their motorbikes on a windy Idaho mountain road and she met up with a semi trailer. It was over before her husband got to her. We eventually found her wishes a few days before her funeral. She mentioned wanting her ashes spread in the Rockies. That was it. Like me… she doesn’t want to go in a graveyard. I want my ashes spread in a small river. But unlike me, my sister thought Heaven was her next home. I would like to think my energy will go back to the stars from whence I came. That seems more poetic and romantic than existing in another realm with no end. That seems painful and boring. It is all supposition and imagination to help us not think of non-existence. I have had enough of boring and painful days on Earth… eternity holds no joy for me, even to imagine it. Love has blossomed in the manure of my life… I can’t imagine Love being something real in Utopia.

    • BDEhrman August 4, 2023 at 6:28 am

      I’m so sorry to hear it. Please accept my condolences.

  20. aggienav04 August 3, 2023 at 5:44 pm

    Memento mori–Remember that you will die.

    A reminder so important that I’ve been thinking about getting it tattooed on my body.

    • bengrubb August 8, 2023 at 12:14 am

      Carpe Diem!! more important

  21. rkeefover August 3, 2023 at 6:10 pm

    Beautiful. I have struggled with nihilism since deconverting… I think mostly because my entire life was so steeped in this “bigger purpose” and a desire to have “meaning” in everything. The thought of not existing, of everything about me eventually being forgotten, pushes hard against the narrative of “I’m special” that I’ve had hammered into me for 30 years.

    On a side note, I have a question I have been mulling over as I tried to talk to a friend about how I don’t believe in the inerrancy of the bible anymore, and tried to point out that the Bible doesn’t claim to be inerrant. He brought up a common verse, 2 Timothy 3:16.

    I am curious what the author of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is claiming when he says that “all scripture is god breathed”. I know that Paul did not actually write it, but was this a claim by the author for the Bible being inerrant? If it’s not, what exactly is this author claiming here by “God breathed”?

    • BDEhrman August 4, 2023 at 6:29 am

      The author is referring to the HEbrew Bible. (And, btw, he invented the word “God-breathed”! It doesn’t occur in Greek before this)

      • bengrubb August 8, 2023 at 12:18 am

        You did not answer the question.
        The question is what is the intent of 2Tim 3:16? Did the author intend to mean “inerrant” or “inspired”?

        • BDEhrman August 11, 2023 at 12:53 pm

          We obviously don’t know what was in his mind, but the word he uses means “God-breathed” not a word that would mean “without error.” The English word “inspired” means “breathed into” so it’s the closest thing we have to its meaning, unless, like the author of 2 Timothy himself, we create a neologism “Godinspired”.

  22. mdevans7324 August 3, 2023 at 7:42 pm

    Before death comes decline. As my wife and I travel to the movies or store or grandkids, I think…there will be a time, if I live long enough, when we won’t be able to do these simple things. We’ll be too old to drive or maybe too weak to walk. And then I think how do you function by yourself when your spouse of 60 or 70 years is dead or you’re gone and she’s alone?
    And you think of the sorrow that your death will bring to your children and grandkids.
    But you can’t live a life focused on the end. You must value each wonderful day that you’re blessed with on this earth, live in the present not the future. “Let the dead bury the dead”

  23. cwjose99 August 4, 2023 at 10:25 am

    Bart, you have given me a new “favorite author” (next to you, of course!) I am halfway through “The Sense of an Ending” and also reading “A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters” by the same author. I can’t thank you enough for pointing me to these books.

    I am in the fourth quarter of my earthly existence, and I have found the key to old age is being grateful for what is still left and not being resentful for those things I can no longer do.

  24. Sosuenyo1956 August 4, 2023 at 5:46 pm

    I recently began investigating my ancestry and discovered documentation for 5 generations and then nothing. While today recordkeeping is better, I don’t know what use this information on my life will be to future generations. I am at peace with not being remembered and left to the dustbin of history, just like my forefathers.

  25. MarkWiz August 4, 2023 at 7:03 pm

    Since leaving religion behind, I’ve developed a philosophy that we are immortal through the people we have touched in some way. For me, it will be through my children, grandchildren, and good friends; through the students I taught during my 36-year career; through the parishioners I reached out to when I was an ordained deacon. But in a very large way, it will also through those with whom I come in contact in a very fleeting way. A smile, a compliment, a joke, running a cold can of Coke out to the trash collector on a hot day, holding a door open for someone. If you can just tilt that meter’s needle a bit toward positivity for someone, you’ve become a part of what is good in life. I’ve been looking at my ancestry lately; I wonder what attitudes, mannerisms, gestures, and like have been passed down to me. So my time is now; I’m here to move life on this planet forward in some way. When the end comes for me, I’ll live on in others’ conscious memories for just a bit, but I hope what is good of me will continue afterwards.

  26. Pattylt August 4, 2023 at 10:20 pm

    Until the sun explodes and annihilates us all, I’m comforted by the knowledge that, while I never knew them, I still carry some of my 100Xs grandparents genes. My children and grandchildren and their children will also still carry some of my genes. That’s an immortality I appreciate and it’s real. I will eventually be completely forgotten yet my DNA continues. I’m happy and satisfied with that.

  27. mechtheist August 7, 2023 at 12:15 am

    I [almost] just took that final trip, kinda had a bit of a detour. May 17 early AM called EMS, I was having trouble breathing, put in ambulance, not long after went into full V. fib, no heartbeat, shocked me 6 times to get back, 4 days later in ICU flatlined twice more. Resuscitations have significantly less than 50-50 chance of surviving, but 3?, should have died as a number of doctors and nurses told me, or suffered serious brain damage. Got lots of ‘god must have a plan for you’ or it was looking out for me, it would have been nice if it intervened a bit earlier. A month after getting out and I was about 90% back to normal, was told that was pretty remarkable also. I’m extremely happy not to be dead or a kumquat dressed in my clothes.

    The main takeaway? I think the universe even MORE absurd. As Thomas Brodie-Sangster said in great show ‘Godless’ “Eventually all of us gonna find the dirt one way or another …”. We didn’t exist for 13 billion years, death is just the mirroring of that nonexistence’>>dust-not dust-dust again.

  28. Bewilderbeast August 7, 2023 at 4:26 pm

    Loved the quote of “History is *that certainty* produced . . .” The more I read about our memories, our penchant for embellishing stories, the bias of history revision, the more I realise how much of our life is “made up as we go.” A shocking realisation, yet liberating too; akin to losing – shaking off – the myths and yes, lies, of religion.
    Same age as you, I too, love my existence, and aspire to do good as you do along the way. My current motorized trundle is in a camper around Southern Africa. Long may it last this side of that curtain! Knowing it is finite adds urgency, joy, introspection and a desire to share. Thank you for the sharing you do.

  29. geofff August 7, 2023 at 6:13 pm

    Thankyou for this excellent post! Euphemisms aside (& they aren’t helpful) – nobody opts out of death & so there really is no excuse (other than perhaps for the cognitive limits of the young or from health impairments) for being unprepared. I would say it is not even unkind to state that it is stupid to end up unprepared for something so certain & so foreseeable. Parents in particular have a duty to get their head around it, to get their own act together & then prep their children (re the loss of their parents) – & not just re the practicalities of Wills & leaving no mess behind.
    There is no tragedy in death itself (although often portrayed as such). Tragedy may be in the circumstances of someone’s death (which we should hope to minimise) or, maybe even worse, in how they lived. It’s worth reading the results of surveys of the elderly & dying about their regrets in life – and then resolving oneself to avoid such things.
    I often reflect on words attributed to Socrates : “It is not living that matters, but living rightly”. And Ecclesiastes also is pretty much on the money.

  30. Rodge August 7, 2023 at 6:22 pm

    I don’t understand why religion has to be based on belief in God, as implied in one of these responses. Our existence as a human being is a spiritual experience. Color, music, imagination, ethics, inspiration are all our brain’s translation of physical stimuli. None of them exist in the physical world. You can see the pattern of sound waves on an oscilloscope but that is not music, a non-physicial experience. Religion can bring people together to form community or do good deeds but, ultimately, to provide a setting to consider our own spirituality and learn from the testimony of others about their spirituality.

  31. Randybessinger August 11, 2023 at 12:12 pm

    I will never forget a conversation I had with my Uncle years ago. He was mowing the lawn and I talked to him about his hospital stay. His heart stopped several times and paddles got his heart going again. They finally stabilized him and he came home.

    After they stabilized him, his Dr. wanted to know if he he saw a light or anything. You would have to know him but he was a jokester, he said he saw naked women (hope this does not offend but realize he was “goofing” on the Dr.) Anyway, the important point is what he told me next. “Don’t be afraid of death, it is just like going to sleep (without dreams)”. He was at peace.

  32. sLiu August 13, 2023 at 6:33 pm

    Dr Ehrman:

    U exhibit & practice more Christian characteristics than practically all so-called USA X-ians. U strengthen people’s resolve with your in depth research.

    Can U really lose your positive characteristics?

    Just like a Vietnam war nurse pro JFK, anti Nixon. how can she become proTrump 40 years later …

  33. Judith August 16, 2023 at 5:11 pm

    You almost got away with it without a single person realizing this was “The Sense of an Ending” on 11/1/12!
    On your recommendation with this post (August 2,2023), I ordered the book this week and wanted to read again what you recently said about it. The search bar brought up your earlier post.
    Between you and me, I think you should repeat your all posts. We won’t know and they are too good for just one time.

    • BDEhrman August 17, 2023 at 6:23 am

      When I was starting out in seminary a senior told me that in his view, if a sermon is worth preaching once, it’s worth preaching twice!

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