… with its lyrical meter and meld of sentiment and science. Not that she’s ever read it – she only now, googling it, discovered it’s a novel, and not a long personal essay as she had all this time (pub. 1982) assumed. She had all this time assumed it was an end of life – or deepest night – dirge on the deepest themes: For creaturely beings, we know a lot, but we really know nothing; or, anyway, our cosmic knowledge, full of violent immensities, mainly frightens us.
In the other direction, the microworld pulses with pandemics; or, as merrily we roll along, masses against our hearts.
As in this brief night thoughts essay by a neuroscientist recently diagnosed with heart cancer.
I was absolutely white-hot angry at the universe. Heart cancer? Who the hell gets heart cancer?! Is this some kind of horrible metaphor? This is what’s going to take me away from my beloved family, my cherished friends and colleagues? I simply couldn’t accept it. I was so mad, I could barely see.
David Linden spins his anger, puzzlement, and despair into an intriguing riff on the permanent propensity of humanity to project eternal life. No real night thoughts, no real December 31.
I cannot imagine the totality of my death, or the world without me in it, in any deep or meaningful way. My mind skitters across the surface of my impending death without truly engaging. I don’t think this is a personal failing. Rather, it’s a simple result of having a human brain…
[B]ecause our brains are organized to predict the near future, it presupposes that there will, in fact, be a near future. In this way, our brains are hardwired to prevent us from imagining the totality of death.
… I would contend that this basic cognitive limitation is not reserved for those of us who are preparing for imminent death, but rather is a widespread glitch that has profound implications for the cross-cultural practice of religious thought. Nearly every religion has the concept of an afterlife (or its cognitive cousin, reincarnation). Why are afterlife/reincarnation stories found all over the world? For the same reason we can’t truly imagine our own deaths: because our brains are built on the faulty premise that there will always be that next moment to predict. We cannot help but imagine that our own consciousness endures.
Or, as a much earlier (1745) night thoughts thing (“The Complaint: or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality”) has it:
As on a rock of adamant we build
Our mountain hopes; spin out eternal schemes,
As we the fatal sisters would outspin,
And, big with life’s futurities, expire.