Life and Death

By Marvin Druger
Email: mdruger@syr.edu

Life and deathRecognizing the brevity of life in the vastness of the universe should compel each of us to live as vigorously as we can.

As I get older (well past 55-plus), I have been thinking more and more about the meaning of life and death.

At this stage of my life, many individuals whom I admired and loved are either retired, terminally ill or dead. There is no escape from the fact that 10 out of 10 people die. So, the risk is very high. It is not a matter of “Will you die?,” but a matter of when and how.

My greatest personal loss was my wife, Pat, who worked with me and tolerated me for 60 years. More recently, a brother passed away. There is no escape from death. You can do wonderful deeds and be extremely productive, but death will eventually catch up with you. Even scientific geniuses like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking died.

My suspicion is that lack of understanding of death led to the creation of religions. Religion provides a way of coping with this phenomenon, but even religion cannot really explain death.

I am very respectful, and even envious, of people who are religious. I believe religion helps such people cope better with life’s setbacks and with death. Personally, I find too many unrealities and unanswered questions in religion. I hope there is a God and that my religious friends are right, but I’m not convinced.

Some religions believe in life after death or reincarnation. Dead individuals come back as themselves, or in some other form. From a scientific perspective, life does go on after death. Life processes stop and the body eventually decays. But the atoms of the body do not decay. They simply move into some other form. I’d like my atoms to be incorporated into long-lived forms such as a saguaro cactus or a tortoise that can live 150 years or more, or a Great Basin bristlecone pine tree that can live about 5,000 years.

I really do hope there is something spiritual about life and death that extends beyond atoms and molecules. Someone once asked me if I believe in “signs?” “Sure,” I replied, “There’s a sign over the entrance to Wegmans, Walmart and other stores.” I jokingly rejected the suggestion that there may be a spiritual world, with spiritual signs. Then, one day, I went up to the attic in my house. I almost never go there, but, for some unknown reason, I just wanted to look around. I spotted a metal file box, amidst the mass of debris in my attic. I opened the box. It was filled with papers. I reached in and randomly took a single sheet of paper from the box. Both sides of the paper were filled with repeats of the words, “I love you,” and it was signed “Pat.” Somehow, I lost that sheet of paper, but now I’m less skeptical about the existence of a spiritual world and “signs.”

One interesting perspective was expressed by a friend of mine who was a former minister. He said that nobody ever really dies. They simply move to another room. However, there is a barrier between rooms that cannot be overcome. Harry Houdini, the great magician, tried to overcome the barrier between life and death, but, as far as I know, even he couldn’t do it.   

Also, as we age, we are bound to get something that we don’t want. If we live long enough, the human body eventually deteriorates. Bodily functions decline and diseases take their toll. Pills, surgeries and marvels of medicine can prolong life, but the end is the same for all. In a way, life is a terminal illness, with moments of happiness, sadness and many experiences.

Consider the context of the existence of an individual human. Science tells us that the universe began with a massive “big bang” explosion about 13.8 billion years ago. Galaxies, stars and planets and other celestial bodies eventually formed. A galaxy is a gravitationally bound cluster of stars, planets, gas, dust, dark matter and other celestial matter. Our sun is a medium-sized star with eight planets revolving around it. Our solar system is located in a galaxy known as the Milky Way that has more than 100 billion stars and their planets. Our glorious earth is just a dot, located off to the side of one of the spiral arms of this galaxy. Humans are but one of about 8.7 million species that inhabit this tiny dot. Humans come in many sizes, shapes and colors, and form different cultures and languages. The diversity among just humans is overwhelming. Humans bring about premature deaths through senseless wars and killings.

When I flew from Poland to JFK airport after a family trip to Poland, I was stimulated to think more about the diversity of humans. When landing, the plane flew over countless numbers of houses and cars. Each individual house had its own family tales to tell. While waiting for my next flight at JFK. I sat in a chair and watched the diversity of life walk by, i.e., people of all skin colors, all ages, all physical conditions, different languages, etc. I imagined what sort of life each person was living. Each person had a special life story to tell. Every suitcase was different. Even if two suitcases were alike, their contents were certainly different. What everyone shares in common are the features that define human life, e.g., similar bodily features, respiration, circulation, digestion, nervous integration, consciousness, autonomous movement, reproduction, etc.

Everyone walked briskly and appeared to be rushing to get somewhere. Rarely do I see people contemplating what life and death are all about. They are too busy, blindly rushing through life. The grim thought that I had was that each of these individuals would eventually die— including me.

Despite the many humans on earth, each individual is unique. Each of us is the product of a genotype interacting with an environment, and it is impossible for any two individuals to experience the same environment. Even identical twins who have the same genotype are different. So, each of us is like a unique grain of sand on a beach filled with other sand grains. In one sense, a single grain of sand may seem insignificant, because there are so many on the beach. In another sense, each grain of sand is unique and that fact gives each grain significance.

All of the above comments lead to my strong belief that each individual has unique talents. Someone may be richer, smarter, taller, etc. but nobody is better than anyone else. Each of us should try to identify our unique talents and nurture them. That’s what formal education should be all about.

Also, recognizing the brevity of life in the vastness of the universe should compel each of us to live as vigorously as we can. “Do it now!” is a good philosophy. When I reached the age to be eligible to get social security benefits, I was told, “If you wait until later to start collecting social security, you will get more money.” My response was, “This is later!” and I started getting social security benefits as soon as I became eligible.

Thinking deeply about life and death should compel us to get along with others, preserve our planet for future generations and do whatever we can to help humans survive as a species. Most species on earth have become extinct. The estimate is that more than 99.9 percent of all the species that every existed are now extinct. Humans now have the atomic power to destroy humanity.

Recently, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. At least, a million people were murdered at this site. As I walked along the dirt path to the former gas chamber, I imagined how horrible this walk was for Nazi victims during World War II. I wrote to my son, “How could the Nazis have been so inhuman?” He replied, “The scary thing is that they were human.”

The history of humans involves many wars and consequent premature deaths. Let’s try to stop this stupidity and try to develop ways to enable each individual to express his or her uniqueness in positive ways and reach the end with the satisfaction that you did your part.

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