The Abyss of Nothing and Everything

September 2, 2013 | 17 comments
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2013-09-02 The_ScreamI often heard, growing up, that teenagers think they are immortal. I always thought this applied to other teenagers. For the most part I didn’t get into the sorts of shenanigans that make adolescence famous. I felt I had a perfectly rational aversion to death and dying that manifest itself in, among other things, a general trepidation about learning to drive. Passing other cars at a cumulative speed of 100mph with only a few inches and some yellow lines as separation is still a kind of scary thing, I think, if you stop and consider it.

It wasn’t until I was nearing my 30s that I for the first time encountered a new and heightened fear of death. It forced me to reconsider whether or not the old saying had applied to me after all. I remember the specific day–an ordinary week day after an ordinary day on the job–when I lay on my bed for a few minutes in the afternoon and the thought suddenly occurred to me: one day I will die. This body, with which I have grown so comfortable, will cool to room temperature. If I were to die right then, my heart to simply cease striving for one beat after the next, it would take minutes or even hours for my wife to find my body. I pictured her shock, horror, and sadness as she found me–but not me–inert and unrespsonsive. There would be nothing I could do to assuage her. Everything I’ve done in my life I’ve done with my body, what can I do without it? That was the part that haunted me the most. It felt–it still feels, if I probe it like an aching tooth–like a psychological version of claustrophobia. Like the time I crawled too far into a sleeping bag, tried to turn around, and for a few panicked moments was completely trapped.

Of course I have my faith, but faith can be tentative. Death is certain. I learned a new kind of fear that day, and it oppressed me for weeks as I sat rocking my newborn daughter, thinking about her life after my death. It has faded into the background, but the feeling haunts me still.

I also often heard while growing up the explanation-as-argument that religion is basically just a vast exercise in wishful thinking and death-denial. Unable to confront the reality and finality of our own mortality, humans cling to fables that bear the promise of a life after this one. Before I was visited by the specter of death this seemed unconvincing because fear of mortality just wasn’t a strong motivation for anything that I did in my life. Afterwards, however, it continues to fail for a new reason.

The reason is that, for me at least, it’s not the fear of death per se that truly frightens me. It’s the fear of nothingness, against which religion offers me no particular advantage.

For as long as I can remember I’ve had two passionate intimations or feelings. The first is that this Earth is not my home. It’s something I feel at a level deeper than words, and that I think I would believe even if I had never heard the doctrine of pre-mortal existence. The second, perhaps as a mirror image, is an absolutely visceral fear of never.

When I was about 5 years old and lost my first tooth, I was as excited as any other kid to put it under the pillow and wait dutifully for the tooth fairy’s traditional exchange. But when I woke the next morning to discover the coin beneath my pillow, I was gripped by a horrified realization that my tooth–which had been part of me–was gone forever. The idea was so traumatizing that it reduced me to inconsolable tears. My poor dad had to wade through our trash (as I found out later) to retrieve the discarded tooth and return it. Once I had it back, I was able to avert my gaze from the abyss of nothingness. I stopped caring about the tooth and lost it shortly thereafter.

I had a similar experience when I was 7 years old on one particularly beautiful September day. I have always loved early fall more than any other time of year, and my favorite thing to do then was to swing on a cloudless day, listen to my feet brush the dry leaves on the ground, and stare up through bare branches into the vast sky. This afternoon, however, I was seized by a sudden intimation that such days are finite. There was a tightness in my chest as I realized that this day, like so many before, was slipping through my hands and there was nothing I could do. It was as though the abyss had opened up beneath me once more, and again I was reduced to tears.

This time, however, there was nothing my parents could give me to take the terrible sense of loss away.

It might seem like a belief in life-after-death would be at least a partial antidote to nothingness, but it is not. The reason is that if you truly understand the immensity of the concept “infinity”, you will understand that every other concept, experience, object, or entity of which you can conceive dwindles to nothingness when placed in the context of forever. This realization bothered me so much that, to motivate myself as a young missionary, I invented a curtailed theory of heaven. I realized that the problem was simply my inability to comprehend these ideas, and so I just decided that whatever the absolute coolest thing I could think of was, I ought to focus on that. I decided that getting all my friends and family into a spaceship and exploring the universe was about the coolest thing I could think of doing, so that was my stand-in for heaven. How long would we explore? Well, forever would mean that we’d visit every single star a trillion times over and still have spent literally 0% of the time remaining, so I just tried not to think about that. (Making infinite stars to visit makes the problem worse, not better, in my mind.)

The simple point I’m making here is that religion, for me, doesn’t do much to assuage my existential dread. Nothing I can imagine does. If our existence is finite: we must one day fall into the void and be nothing. If our existence in infinite, then we instead fade slowly, eon by eon, until everything that we have ever been able to imagine or conceive is reduced to a speck lost in an ocean. I cannot ever imagine making the decision, voluntarily, to end my existence, but I’m also terrified of the fear of anything going on and on and on without end. (Even the lyrics of “If You Could Hie to Kolob” freak me out.)

My mum took me and my brother to England when I was 8, and my grandfather bought us some army men. I remember holding one of them in my hand in the little fish pond behind their apartment, raising and lowering it in the murky water and watching as the colors faded to dark the deeper it went. Solemnly, I opened my fingers and it slipped through them. I watched as it fell deeper and deeper–deeper than I’d been able to reach with my arm–and was lost in the depths. Gone forever.

Looking back I see this for what it was: a sacrificial offering. I had succumbed vicariously to the call of the void, that feeling I get near high places that seems an almost irresistible urge to throw myself into thin air and fall. It was a token offering to the abyss to buy myself peace.

It didn’t work.

I don’t think anything does. Even at a spiritual high when I feel absolutely certain I will be greeted by loved ones after my last breath, the idea of a happy-ever-after is still something I have to take on blind faith, for I cannot see how such a thing could be possible.

2013-09-02 Sisyphus Happy

17 Responses to The Abyss of Nothing and Everything

  1. Andrea R. on September 1, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    My 8-year-old son does this. He mourns the passing of events like his birthday, Christmas, or visits with friends. I’ve never seen such nostalgia in one so young. It’s also heartening to see how deeply he appreciates the beautiful moments of his life. I appreciate your insights.

  2. Nathaniel Givens on September 2, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Andrea-

    Just wanted to apologize for changing the post substantially after you commented. I accidentally published it before I was finished with it, then unpublished it, finished writing it, and posted it again.

    I left in the stories from my childhood, so your comment still makes sense, but I just thought I’d drop a note for you and everyone else.

  3. Howard on September 2, 2013 at 8:04 am

    Eternity lies in the present, the midpoint between two nanoseconds. What makes it tolerable, what makes it wonderful is the connectedness to the divine you experience by being there. It’s hard to imagine but easy to experience one you learn how.

  4. Jax on September 2, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Things will go on forever = dread.
    Things won’t go on forever = dread.

    Even after reading this piece I still don’t know WHY you are so terrified of “forever”. I don’t understand eternity better than anyone else I’m sure, but I don’t see anything in it that is frightening. You are experiencing “forever” right now. This moment in time is part of forever. Are you frightened at the moment? or in a constant state of panic? unhappiness?

    I figure all of eternity will go on very similarly to what I have experienced in the past. Sure there will be things that change, nothing I’ve had change before has been dread worthy, and neither will anything in the future. Some of those changes will even be sudden and possibly violent (one moment I was unborn, and the next I was born. One moment I was unmarried, the next I was married. One moment I’ll be alive, and in the next I won’t be). I don’t see any reason to be fearful.

    I’m in a broken body right now, but someday the pain will end. I’ve mourned lost loved ones, but someday I’ll see them again, and sometime after that we’ll go different ways again. One day I’ll no longer be able to hold my children, but in it’s place I’ll get to converse with new friends and experience new joys that would be impossible if their youth lasted forever.

    Maybe that should fill me with dread, but I just don’t see why.

    Very well written post though. The imagery was great even if the message failed to resonate with me!

  5. Wayne on September 2, 2013 at 11:43 am

    I too have felt these kind of feelings. When I was growing up the dread of nothingness drove to tears, and sessions of balling my eyes out that probably freaked my parents out because I could never find the words to explain what was wrong. A very interesting book I read began to open my mind up to new ways of thinking about the subject of forever and the after-life. It’s called “God’s Debris.” You can read it here:

    http://nowscape.com/godsdebris.pdf

    It was written by Scott Adams (author of the Dilbert comic strips). It is a really interesting “thought experiment” thats fun to think about. It was actually one of the first marginally successful e-books. I highly recommend reading it.

    For me; I have come to the conclusion that our human brains are just wired to freak out about concepts of infinity and forever because it just can’t comprehend a timeless existence, or that our concept of time is only true in mortality, and time will take on a new meaning in the next existence.

  6. Adam G. on September 2, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    I could say amen to almost all that.

    For me, imaginaning that eternity might be partly a timeless state where all moments I have ever lived are present to me has been a partial work-around of the dread of those infinite spaces.

  7. Steve on September 2, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Yes, there are those moments when I suddenly get a glimpse of eternity of space/time, and in that moment I feel a crazy panic/anxiety/ultra-joy/excitement where I feels like I just got the wind knocked out of me.

    What it means to me is that all Intelligence spends “exactly 0%”, to borrow your phrase, as a non-God, and then spends 100% of eternity aiding lesser Intelligence to also so become. And unlike in mortality where the joy of the moment fades in memory often to be lost altogether, these things, including regaining our mortal moments of joy, become a part of the ever-increasing panorama of beautiful and joyful moments that we will retain ever-present before us for eternity. Therefore nothing is lost, and we have literally everything to gain.

  8. Kevin P on September 3, 2013 at 7:11 am

    I used to fear the idea of perfection. We are a society of progression. What would we do once we become perfect at everything? Where is success measured? Becoming perfect at everything.
    I feared infinity from this.
    I’ve come to believe that maybe heaven is just like earth. Except everything comes to its true nature and we sense we are home.
    People still play, laugh, make mistakes. We are still “we”. We just understand perfectly who we are and what we can and cannot do.
    Yet we understand how to fill each others needs. And forgive each other for making those mistakes.
    Mourn with those that mourn.
    Comfort those that need comfort.
    And our sense of progression is filled when we are doing what is necessary to help the people around us.
    Isn’t that what a perfect society would look like? I believe so.

  9. Sonny on September 3, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Jax,

    Even after reading this piece I still don’t know WHY you are so terrified of “forever”. I don’t understand eternity better than anyone else I’m sure, but I don’t see anything in it that is frightening.

    Have you read A Short Stay In Hell by Steven Peck? It may not capture exactly the reason for dread that Nathaniel shares here, but it will give you something else to think about regarding the concept of eternity. It is a short novella so you could finish it in an evening, and costs only a few dollars as a Kindle download on Amazon.

  10. Riley on September 3, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    @Nathaniel, as always, thank you.

    @Sonny, I second your recommendation. Peck’s book is dreadful – but in a brilliant and good way. Highly recommend it as well. Dude has spurred many deep thoughts (and literally many nightmares) for me with his book.

  11. Mtnmarty on September 4, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    As per the usual I will choose an odd bit to focus on.

    NG: I cannot ever imagine making the decision, voluntarily, to end my existence, but I’m also terrified of the fear of anything going on and on and on without end.

    Having often thought of suicide myself with only the propensity to procrastinate saving my life, this sentence really struck a cord with me in terms of how people differ.

    To my way of thinking, you have an even greater “belief in” your own existence and identity and ongoing nature than most people (who are all pretty convinced they exist as a unity over time.

    The older I get and the more experience I have with people over time and with people with damaged brains and mental illness, the more skeptical I am of whether there is any ongoing “I” that exists.

    I have not been able yet to entice you to be likewise skeptical that we have any useful knowledge of our identity other than the very contingent bodily identity that we have now. You reason as if your immortal soul or the intelligence from which you were created is not contingent on the specifics of this world but the entire project seems problematic because all of what we normally consider “us” is contingent on ordinarily contingent life circumstances.

    Simple examples, people are born grow up and, often, get old. What they do, what they like, what they prefer, what they believe changes. How would this possibly relate to an after life or a pre-existence. Is one a sports fan in the after life? If not, there is no “me” in the after life, but what sports would be played and how?

    So, since all pre and prior seems overly speculative what about what we know about ourselves here and now. We know our sense of identity and experience in the world is contingent on both external and internal circumstances. You talk about how your thought has changed. What happens when your memory starts to weaken and you can’t really recall what it was like to be the type of person you were when you were younger? Would infinity disturb you if you can’t even remember it?

    Anyway, thanks again for the post even though I don’t think we exist now they way you think we exist let alone in an infinite future.

  12. Rachael on September 4, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Yeah, we are definitely related. I had a similar moment of eternity-trauma when I was saying my nighttime prayers on the bunk bed when I was probably 7. I’ve pushed it to the back of my mind ever since- both alternatives too terrifying to wrap my mind around.

  13. Jax on September 4, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Sonny,

    I’ll check the book out if I can find it… but in the mean time you and I and everyone are currently experiencing eternity right now. There isn’t anything frightening that I can see.

  14. Mtnmarty on September 4, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Jax,

    If you don’t dread anything much, then it seems like you don’t have strong preferences about what happens in the future, which means that you are a bit other worldly.

  15. Mtnmarty on September 4, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Jax,

    I’m just really curious that you think “I figure all of eternity will go on very similarly to what I have experienced in the past.”

    I find my experience of the world to have changed dramatically over time. I struggle to communicate with my children what life was like in the past. It was fundamentally different. The food was different, the air was different, the attitudes were different, the possibilities were different.

    The fact that people now exist who can’t find anything to dread about change is proof itself how much the world has changed.

    I’m not disagreeing with you, I mean if you don’t dread, or fear, you don’t dread or fear but if someone asks me on my life to identify one person who might be a zombie or alien, I’m going with you! :)

  16. Jax on September 4, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Mtn Marty,

    zombie/alien – LOL!

    Yes, life was different back when. We have a member in our little branch here who just celebrated her 109th birthday on Monday. The world has changed a TON in the last 109 years. But do I fear the change, no. Why SHOULD I? I can see why people might, but is there a reason I SHOULD be afraid?

    My life changed when I got married, but I wasn’t terrified of it before hand. It changed again when I became a father, but I didn’t look upon that with dread. My life will change when I die, but I don’t look upon that with terror. Some things will continue to change forever, and some will continue without changing for just as long. I’ll take them as they come and deal with them.

    In the words of Elder Wirthlin (or perhaps his mother is more accurate), “Come what may, and love it!”

  17. Jax on September 4, 2013 at 7:29 pm

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