Go Gently into the Good Night

A great many people living today have a fear of death and also of non-existence. As a result of this fear, many people want to prolong their lives as long as possible, including even after death, to live on for the rest of eternity in the divine company of the immortal creatures with whom many humans have populated their vision of the perfect life. This common desire is only one example of our unwillingness to accept what we are, which is mortal, finite, fallible, and terrestrial creatures, instead believing ourselves, while fervently desiring, to be something that we are not, namely immortal, infallible, and heavenly creatures.

As human populations have grown, and especially with modern communication methods that enable us to see all the many people that exist in different parts of the world, our strong, innate desire to imitate makes many of us simply want to remain alive, just like all the other people, such as the celebrities, we see on television, the Internet, in movies, newspapers, magazines, television programs, and other mediums of communication. This desire is also strengthened by the fact that few of us today observe people dying in real life, especially when we are children, the age when we are most impressionable. In other words, the fact that we don’t see people dying when we are children has a very strong tendency to strengthen our fear of death.[1] According to the Law of Inhibition, people don’t want to do the things which they haven’t observed others doing; in this case, this means that they don’t want to die, since they personally have not observed others dying, in particular when they were children. Moreover, the fact that the death rate has decreased dramatically all over the world has transformed death from an ever-present and common, even banal, reality to a rare, uncommon, and terrifying tragedy. For many people, especially the young, death has been transformed into something that happens to other people, but not to them. Hence, these peculiar features of modern life have led to the belief that dying represents a sort of failure on our part, a belief that is especially prevalent among parents, who regard the death of their child as being due to their failure as parents, even if the child’s death wasn’t their fault.

Human desires can be separated into three roughly distinct categories. There are the desires that could be called animal because they are also experienced by other animals. These include hunger, thirst, self-preservation, and sexual desire. There is another large category of desires that are due to our social and imitative nature. These include the desire for material possessions that are not necessary for existence, since they do not enhance our chances of survival, and the desires for things such as family, friends, fame, honours, prestige, glory, intoxication, social status, and adulation. And then there is the desire that is probably possessed only by human beings, namely, to be like God: immortal, infallible, omnipotent, immaterial, and unchanging.[2]

The Buddha made no distinction between these different kinds of desires, declaring that all desires are bad, and the ultimate goal of life is to cease desiring anything, including even the desire to live, thereby escaping from the continual cycle of rebirth in which all living creatures are otherwise trapped forever.

In Dylan Thomas’s poem about death, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he urges the reader four times in his brief poem to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Thomas wrote the poem when he was still a relatively young man,[3] and it expresses the sense of cosmic injustice that many people, in particular the young, feel at the thought that we marvelous, sentient creatures will eventually grow old and one day have to die. Such an immature and ultimately futile attitude towards death, since no amount of raging “against the dying of the light” will change in the slightest the fact that we will all die one day, illustrates two important facts: first, many of us are not content with and grateful for all the wonderful things that we have been given here on Earth, and second, we regard the Earth and earthly existence as imperfect – in no small part because we must die – and therefore unworthy of us. Both of these widespread beliefs partake in and reek of the Sin of Ingratitude. Although ingratitude is not counted among the Deadly Sins, it certainly could, and in my opinion should, be included in their number.

Most of us know individuals who believe that they are better than other people. They are conceited, arrogant, supercilious, dismissive, and discontented. They ignore and avoid their fellows because of their sense of superiority over them, which renders them insufferable and usually poor company. In turning our backs on Nature and all the many other wonderful living creatures that inhabit the Earth, preferring instead to live in our artificial worlds where we interact almost exclusively with other human animals, while many of us earnestly pray for better and more worthy company in the afterlife, we are behaving no differently from these insufferable boors who believe themselves to be superior to everyone else, for many of us humans believe that we are superior to the rest of God’s Creation.

There are tales and fables about animals that wanted to be something they were not, such as the frog that believed itself to be as big as an ox and, by trying to swell up to an ox’s size, killed itself by its foolish attempt. But what is the silly frog’s foolish belief compared with our silly human belief that we are like God, and therefore our rightful place is among the immaterial beings that never die? Other animals, and those whom we dismissively call “primitive” peoples, do not fear death; instead, they regard death as a natural and inevitable part of life because they do not live separated and alienated from the rest of Nature – where death is an ever-present reality – as we modern, civilized, and depraved humans do.

It is not primarily, as the Buddha believed, the common animal desires, or even the many human desires with which so many of us needlessly complicate our lives, from which we must escape, but rather the desire to be what we are not and never will be. By accepting our essentially – and unalterably – finite, limited, mortal, and earthly nature, we also implicitly accept the inevitability of death, that is, eternal non-existence, as the necessary, final end to the mysterious and wonderful life that all of us have been given the chance to partake in, savour, enjoy, and cherish, for as long or as short a time as we remain here on Earth. For by desiring no more than this temporary, earthly existence, we will show our deep gratitude for the wonderful Gift of Life that God has bestowed on all Its living creatures.

[1] The fact that death is depicted in horrifying ways in some fictional films and books also has the effect of strengthening many people’s fear of death. An example is the recent fad of zombie films in which the dead are depicted as unquiet and insatiable creatures that do not rest in peace and instead must feed on human flesh. I suspect the popularity of such horror films is one reason why some people suffer from nightmares or are afraid of the dark.

[2] Of course, those who believe in an afterlife acquire this belief from imitating others who also desire it, and so this desire could be placed with all the other desires of imitation. But for the sake of the discussion, I will consider it separately.

[3] The poem was published in 1952, a year before Thomas died at the age of thirty-nine.