Lately, to entertain myself, I’ve been contemplating death.
Many years ago, I was diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. I wound up surviving it, but at the time it looked as though I had only about 10 years to live, the final months to be spent in end-stage liver failure. End-stage liver failure is not a comfortable way to die, which is a bit of an understatement, like saying that “nasally” is not a comfortable way to consume a pork chop.
Shortly after the diagnosis, my friend Joel — who, as a journalist, is required by the First Amendment to ask obnoxious questions — inquired whether, if I could, I would bargain with God to live the next 20 years in good health but then suddenly die. I said sure; at the time, it seemed like a no-brainer. That was 20 years ago, almost to the day.
The proposition may have been hypothetical, but what if God was listening? Lately, I’ve been extra careful when crossing the street. Or eating chunky food that could lodge in the windpipe. Or, you know, living.
Death would be easier for me to contemplate if, like most people, I actually did believe in God. I don’t — nor in an afterlife, nor reincarnation, nor any of the popular anodynes that make our end on Earth easier to bear. (For the record, though, my favorite afterlife is Valhalla, the Norse heaven where everyone gets drunk from goat-milk wine. Valhalla is presided over by the god Odin and his wife, Frigg.)
But we atheists don’t have anything like that. We are left only with the banal finality of death. How do we cope? It helps if you are also the child of atheists, as I am. When I was about 10, I asked my father what it was like after you die: Is it bad? He said, “Well, what was it like for you in 1918? Was it bad?” I never forgot this. It seemed both stupid and profound. And oddly reassuring.
Now, I reassure myself in other ways, mostly involving a rigorous, unblinking philosophical comparison between death and its opposite state, which is not life, per se, but life as we are forced to endure it. For example, the other day my friend David e-mailed me this:
“Hard to believe, but scientists have been working in a top-secret lab for several years creating a presidential candidate perfectly calibrated to drive you, Gene Weingarten, into a vibrating frenzy of blind hatred and raw fury, not only pressing all of your buttons, but also seeding new hate buttons just so he can press those, too.”
David was right. He was talking, of course, about Rick Perry, THE FANATICALLY RELIGIOUS, SCIENCE-DENYING, BLOODTHIRSTY EXECUTIONER IGNORAMUS AND REACTIONARY TROGLODYTE about whom I can write only in capital letters, like a lunatic, spit-spewing Internet commenter, as I did in my answering e-mail to David, which is when he jubilantly pointed out that there are still 14 months more of this campaign. “By January,” he wrote, “you will be typing with a sledgehammer. Your office floor will be littered with smashed laptops.” Again, he was right, which is when I decided that there are states of engagement with life that might well be worse than death.
For example, dead men do not have to pass news kiosks and realize they are so ignorant of popular culture, so out of it, that they no longer know who any of the people are in the first-name-only headlines on the gossip tabloids. The dead are not required to endure regular colonoscopies, prostate exams and other physical indignities for the privilege of more time on Earth in which to obsess over anticipating the behavior of stock market investors, who operate with all the composure and maturity of nap-deprived toddlers fighting over a cupcake.
Most of all, the dead can stop compiling dreaded birthdays, such as the one today, my 60th.