I often find myself debating with friends and colleagues about the nature of conscious experience after death. One person argues that the death of the human body is the finality of conscious experience, while another argues that death is merely an intermediary between the resting places of one’s own soul. I sit here typing after the recent passing of a relative, only to notice how little this distinction matters.
We have all heard stories of someone who managed to quit smoking after their late mother speaks to them in some form from the afterlife, ultimately getting their life back on the right course. Equally so, we have heard stories of those who feel an overwhelming sense of urgency to improve their own lives due to the passing of a sibling who was much too young, leading them to reduce their drinking, exercise more, and be the best version of themselves. Both stories convey a message of self-improvement attributed to a recently deceased loved one, only differing in whether our inspiration came from the spirit of the deceased, or simply the reality of their passing.
I’d like to beg the question: Why does it matter?
We go to church, learning that deceased relatives are in a holy place with their deity of choice, looking down on us, guiding us through our lives. We go to therapists, being told to share our stories about the one we lost, ensuring all trauma or guilt is worked through, allowing us to process and move on. We go to school, absorbing the biological reality of life’s cessation, and how absolute it very well may be. Yet we fail to recognize that most of us experience life much the same, regardless of what we believe.
There are few experiences that manage to bring us all together like the dying of someone who is loved, yet, once the moment of shared emotion passes, we go back to our lives of religious and political debate, all the while failing to see the humanity in one another.
As a Christian misses their grandmother, so too does a nonbeliever miss their’s. As a Muslim may feel the presence of their passed relatives in their daily lives, so too may an Atheist attribute the changes they are making in their lives to the passing of a loved one.
We mourn as friends, yet fight as adversaries.
We unify under death, yet abuse life.
We love most in the moments that we realize the fleeting nature of our lives, yet live in anxiety and frustration during most others.
We mourn our own guilt knowing our wrongdoings, yet wrong others until those who need our empathy can no longer receive it.
At this point in my life, I find it clear that it doesn’t matter whether conscious experience can live on past the life of the body, but what does matter is how we treat one another before this moment occurs… as each moment that passes, will never be lived again.