I’ve been contemplating death a lot lately. The saying goes that death and taxes are the only constants in life, yet here the world sits at the brink of a new era. The world is perched on that liminal edge, ready to cross over into the strangest age of human history. Don’t believe me? There are scientists right now who are receiving the Nobel Prize for their breakthrough transformation of stem cells into egg and sperm. This will mean that two men, two women, the infertile of both sexes, and some seriously self-loving narcissist can produce a human being from skin cells! Granted, this has only so far been done on mice. Still, it is amazing! Humanity is changing the process of life on both fronts. Humans are living longer than ever and there are other scientists, biologists, and nanotechnology experts working on ways to make humans live even longer, maybe indefinitely. Can you imagine?
News like this makes it seem all the more strange that I lost so many family members in the past few years. On top of that, doesn’t it seem like celebrities are dropping like flies? It certainly is an odd time. However, there is the topic no one actually discusses. What is it like to die? There are stories swept under the rug because they are still considered unscientific. We have the theories of relativity and quantum physics, we are changing what it means to be human, and the odds for the impossible (or at the very least the highly improbable) decrease with each passing day. Yet the greatest mystery of the universe, the very phenomenon that, once explained, may truly unite quantum physics with general relativity and provide the Grand Unified Theory once and for all, is embarrassingly unsolved.
There is the question of why anything exists, but that just leads into a confusing tangle of ideas and realizations that often ends in a strong dose of existential terror. No, I merely mean life itself. Is it necessary, scientifically? Is it inevitable? The tricky thing is, either way you answer, there is something fantastic and mysterious occurring. Life is a very, very, very strange thing. We are self-aware machines that can imagine the world as it isn’t, as it could be, and as it was. Regardless of our seemingly miniscule place in the universe (multiverse) the fact that we can comprehend how miniscule we are is amazing.
Before I get even more off track, let me make my point: I am so confused about near death experiences. I was reading today about a neuroscientist who slipped into a meningitis-induced coma and came out of the other side transformed. What are these people going through when they die and return? What about people who are not near death? There are those who just randomly are struck one day with a deep spirituality. Then there are those who get it from a certain drug, or even meditation. These stories keep cropping up and are littered throughout history and yet are attributed to nothing but a faulty imagination. Basically, all of these people are or were crazy and hallucinating.
I tend to take offense to this dismissive line of thinking. Human beings are more than faulty hardware. As an individual who is actually crazy and actually left-handed, I know what it’s like to be on the other side of this. I have had my share of liminal events; those strange occurrences in my life that have been chalked up to my being bipolar or being left-handed (lefties are more prone to craziness). But what does that label actually mean? That the chemicals are unbalanced in my brain or that I literally think the wrong way? I often felt I lived a backward life, as if I were in the wrong universe, because I only ever met right-handed, linear thinkers. Giving my experience a label doesn’t explain it; it only gives it a shorthand name.
It is not my goal here to discuss my neurodiversity per se. I am interested in this life-after-death thing. I have often wondered if an alternative explanation for mental illness, for hallucinations, for more-real-than-real experiences was simply that the person’s consciousness was partially slipping into another universe. If our imagination is rooted in the ability to rearrange what we know of reality, does it pick parts from all of reality, even other universes? I like that explanation more than the standard “It’s all random” spiel.
In any case, this is all speculation. I am a writer, and bipolar, and left-handed. Of course my explanation has to be more fanciful. I do not know for sure what it means to die. Does time fold back on itself so that the cycle of your life continues indefinitely, or does the last moment stretch out into eternity, or does consciousness move on to a new machine? Does it float and disperse into the void that somehow has enough energy to explode millions of times over yet doesn’t? Life has evolved from the unaware to the self-aware: is there a day coming when we’ll be hyper-aware? Humans are growing smarter and healthier yet the rate of mental disorders is rising instead of going down. Are we all just going crazy as we enter a world with technologies that people of the last few centuries called witchcraft or divine? Or are our minds evolving faster than our bodies can handle?
All I know is, as we prepare to send manned missions to Mars, build quantum computers, and phones that can scan your body to check your health (within the next few decades!), I am looking forward to learning more about life. We may have proof of exactly what these transcendent experiences truly mean. Until then, I can only wonder at the magnificent minds we have and the experience of having any experience.