When it comes to promises of eternal life, what many of us want is an assurance much greater than that our impersonal molecules or energy will persist, in the soil, stars, or whatever. We want to know that we will maintain our thoughts, feelings, and general personality, that is, our “subjectivity.” Part of what seems to attract many Westerners to some general notion of reincarnation is the assurance that one might still get to more or less continue on as some version of oneself. For many of us, it seems, what is objectionable about death isn’t just the possibility that being in general will cease, but the fact that I might no longer get to continue being me.
For many of us, the prospect of no longer being ourself, of losing ourself, seems to be the greatest fear of all, and one that manifests not only as a fear of death, but also in the fear of extreme memory loss or dementia. It’s an existential-level dread so endemic that we may spend most of our time, money, and energy in efforts to deny and avoid this prospect. Organized religion is an obvious beneficiary here — with its usual promises of eternal life — but fitness and spirituality can function similarly. How many of us have dabbled in yoga, swallowed supplements by the handful, or joined gyms in the dim hope of prevailing over dissolution and decay? There are, of course, also practitioners of the paranormal who thrive on folks’ desperate longing to believe that personality — often equated with “soul”— is ultimately independent of the physicality that we see decaying and dissolving all around us.
One thing that’s interesting to me about this all-too-common obsession with holding onto our established notions of who we are, body and mind, is that so many of us don’t seem to much like ourselves in the first place. In fact, I’ll bet that, during our fitful hours of insomnia, most of us probably spend far more time self-flagellating over how we look, our bad habits, or the supposedly stupid things we said or did, than the prospect of having our very existence utterly snuffed out. It’s worth noting that so many of us basically despise ourselves and our lives — in some cases are actually horrified and disgusted by who we think we are— but still fight like hell to hold onto these same life stories. The tragic irony is that, while self-loathing seems, tragically, to push some into seeking death as an escape, it motivates others to grip even more tightly to an unsatisfactory version of life.
I have no intention here of taking any position as to whether or not eternal life of some sort is a plausible prospect or not. This is partly because, rather than focusing on whether or not I might possibly be able to rely on this version of me to persist into the future, perhaps to eternity, it seems fair to ask myself first why I would want to continue being THIS me. The question brings to mind a pair of red boots I had in my 20s. I loved them, and, at first, wore the hell out of them. Decades later, although they’d long been relegated to the back of my closet, no longer fit to be worn even if I had still wished to, I had a terrible time letting them go. I clung to them. And this was despite the fact that many of the memories made by the red-booted me were not even especially pleasant.
That we cling in this way is understandable given the simple fact that most of us spend so much of our lives constructing our “selves,” personalities that, let’s face it, are pretty shallowly defined by likes and dislikes, distinguished primarily by psychological and aesthetic style. This surely cannot be “self” in any essential sense, but is, rather, an elaborate idea of self made to feel real and precious by virtue of the mental and emotional energy we imbue it with, not to mention the objects and other people we anchor it to. That there is often such a frenzied, open-ended quality to this construction-of-self project suggests that few of us are ever satisfied with who we have come to believe ourselves to be, that is, with who our mind has come to persuade us that we are. It is almost like being caught in an abusive, co-dependent relationship, but with a superficial, sometimes cruel, mentalized version of oneself rather than with a separate person. In such cases, perverse as it is, the very one who is making us feel dissatisfied and miserable is the same one who is hypnotizing us into believing that we cannot possibly find happiness without them.