Individuality and Death

The last few months have been full of thoughts of my dad, who passed away last fall. It’s interesting how his death has affected me and my outlook on life. While I cannot honestly call myself a philosopher, I have attempted over the last 5 years or so to delve into my own beliefs and try to formulate my own philosophy of the world. As many who know me well can attest, this has involved a lot of change in my religious orientation and my attitude toward the idea of God.

I think the main thing that religion can impart is a strong sense of hope. Especially in my Mormon upbringing, death marked a sad but ultimately temporary separation. For those that believe, God will make everything work out for the best, if we only have the patience to wait. I know this gives a lot of comfort to many people and is probably one of the strongest arguments for the religious life.

With my dad’s passing I found myself without this traditional religious comfort. Many people would find this very depressing (and have told me so); I suppose this is because many people don’t have enough experience with atheism or atheists to know how they might deal with death’s finality. For my own part, I find myself more and more understanding this event through Buddhist teachings about individuality. Perhaps an analogy will help explain.

If I see a cloud, I say, “there is a cloud”. It is distinct from other clouds by its shape, contours, color and position in the sky. However, each moment that passes the cloud changes. At first the changes are very small, and I can still identify the overall shape and color of the cloud. After an hour, the cloud is gone, and in its place are more clouds. Am I right to bemoan the loss of the cloud? The matter from which the cloud consisted has not been destroyed. Rather, it was my characterization of the cloud as an individual thing that caused my suffering at its passing. The cloud never existed; what I saw was a mischaracterization, the temporary manifestation of something that is really a part of everything.

Christians might see in this analogy a reference to the separation of body and soul that happens at death. Being a materialist (in the sense of believing that the natural world is the only world), I might say that my sadness at my father’s death is caused not by his passing, but by my misunderstanding of the actual nature of human life. Was the soul of my father truly a thing distinct from nature? Of what did my father consist?

This question helps me realize that people are not so much substance as they are cause and effect. My dad had experiences that made him distinct from other people, but he was also constantly changing as his experiences changed. The dad I remember from my early childhood is not the same man I remember in his last hours of pain and sickness. Similarly, he did not consist solely of his body or soul, but of his effect on others, and the memories that I still carry from his life. His existence was not concentrated in his physical body, but was diffused throughout the world, both before and after his death.

I’m certainly no expert on Buddhism or any other religion for that matter, and the idea that the “self” doesn’t actually exist in individuals is very difficult to think about (namely because it is impossible to think about anything without characterizing it as something distinct from other things). Perhaps my beliefs are a bit mystical, but they have helped me find understanding regarding my dad’s passing and my own reaction to it.

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