When looking up at the stars there is often a palpable sense of disconnection, a moment when the sheer vastness of what isn’t “me” spreads out into an immediate existential crisis. As Jean-Paul Sartre noted, “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.” There is a characteristic quality to space that begins with disconnection and proceeds to a bone-jarring belief in separation. Where our narratives seemingly would go on forever, we are at once reminded that eternality is part of our story, not an inherent aspect of our lives.
This connection between separation and death brings about all manner of attempts to assuage the anxiety. Typically this takes the form of a return to eternality, either positing a “soul” that is immortal or making the self inherently connected to the cosmos in a panentheist model. The assumption is that by negating the concern with death, the dissolution of separation will soon follow. Given the rampant destruction done in the name of religion and other transcendental ideologies, I do not believe this is occurring. Rather than removing separation, only the concern with death is dealt with, leaving someone still feeling separate but without restriction on their behavior.
Be mindful here that I am not equating fear of death with morality. That is the traditional religious claim: that without death, in particular the fear of it in relation to judgment, ethics is impossible. I’m noting, rather, that it is not death but an internalized separation that is at issue. Ethics is based on interconnection. All the focus on death does is perpetuate separation between ourselves and the natural world. Death, particularly if viewed as the cessation of a form, is inevitable. For that matter, the very bodies we possess now are not the same bodies that we had when we were born nor will they be the same when we are much older. Cellular change and birth guarantee that. Making death into a thing itself, in some capacity contrary to the life process, is based on and perpetuates the myth of separation.
What if we step back a moment and attempt looking only at separation? Imagine for a moment being no longer connected to anything or anyone. When you realize this isn’t possible, try then to consider where you and anything or anyone begins and ends. Sure there’s the language reference of “you” and “me,” but look deeper. Thinking of the other person requires you to consider yourself in relation to them in some way, making distinctions a mental requirement but not a foundational reality. If we were so very distinct from others, such that at a fundamental level we were wholly separate from them, where would our ability to get “caught up in a moment” come from? How would we empathize? Even predicting someone’s behavior, tentative and haphazard as that can be at times, requires the ability to think another’s thoughts, at least close enough in accuracy to know what they’ll do next. This would be impossible were there not a foundational holism involved.
This is not some woo-woo declaration of “we are all one.” Nor does this remove the need, if not the necessity, of creating distinctions between ourselves and others and objects. Newton’s apple bonked him on the head, it did not occupy the same place as him. Such it is in relation to others, we interact in a world of distinctions but do not need to take that next leap to existential separation. The air particles you breath are the same as what others breath, the world reciprocates in relational interaction the same with you as any other, though the form such takes may be different. I can slap a table and another may punch it, but fundamentally it is the same table and reacting to us within the singularity of reality. Singularity does not mean monotonous.
When we distinguish between death and separation, we find that our fears are not about shrugging off the Shakespearean mortal coil but with separation from all the people and environments that give us identity. Recognizing separation as an illusion, not a fact, allows us to ponder just how deeply intertwined we truly are, all too often unconscious of that complexity. In that space we are never alone, never lost and never gone. The stuff of stars gave us being and will continue to do so. Our stories give form to our experience and will continue to live on after the “I” is no longer the focus of them, not merely due to people remembering us, but because their stories, just like ours, could not continue without us in them.
© David Teachout