Dealing With Mortality: A Skeptic's Guide

A Comic Guide by Kirk Israel

"Love makes us poets and the approach of death should make us philosophers."
--George Santayana

Coming to grips with mortality- this is the biggest personal issue that every one of us will have to deal with.

It can be especially difficult for people who don't believe that there's an afterlife waiting for them.

To contemplate the end of our selves in this world is frightening; to not convince yourself that there is life after this world requires a special kind of bravery. I've written this comic to try to share the thoughts that have allowed me to understand and accept the situation.

My Experience

"Kirk, it's your birthday, do not be obsessed with death [...] At least not until the project is finished."
--Rob Baum, co-worker

Every once in a while, I'll have a sleepless night, suddenly aware of how temporary I am, trying to accept the smallness of my place in this world, overwhelmed by the weirdness of being.

Other days I'll be unable to fully focus on the tasks at hand, obsessing about how everything I'm looking at is impermanent, and that my viewpoint will be extinguished someday.

Sometimes I'll start playing the numbers game: if I lived to be 80, I have just under 30,000 days, just over 4,000 weeks- and I've lived through a number of those already!

(One odd little math trick I stumbled on during one of my existential anxiety attacks- if I have the three score and ten years allocated to me by the bible, that's ten weeks for every day of a single year.)

I had a series of that kind of "attack" in the spring of the year 2000, but over the course of months, I started to feel better. I'm sure that it wasn't entirely an intellectual crisis, but one with its roots in disturbances in the neurochemcal stew of my brain.

There seems to be a definite correlation between these attacks and stress at work, for example, just like there was when I went through my Y2K anxiety phase. (What can I say? There seemed to be the potential for a lot more difficulties than emerged...)

Beyond that, I've come up with some quotes, ideas and philosophies, ways of looking at the situation-- without compromising my intellectual integrity-- that comfort me and allow me to deal with the world as it relates to me.

The Mission of this Comic

"We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is."
--Dr. Mark Vonnegut, M.D.

I'm hoping that by making an online comic with these thoughts, I might help a few people who might be having the same anxieties. (I've read essays about the personal sharing that can occur on the web as the key to the next step in our cultural evolution; I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is the most accessible universally-available publishing medium ever.)

I'm also creating this as a resource for my future self, a place to come back to when I again feel my anxieties rise. (If I started to think in these anxious terms when I was 25, what's going to be like when I'm in my 40s? My 70s?)

I've targeted this page at skeptics for a reason. If you have faith, real faith, in a solid Abrahamic religious doctrine, you should be able to find your solace in your conception of the afterlife. (Or, be scared silly by the threat of endless hellfire, but that's a different comic.)

I don't mean to dismiss this as an easy task: our animal nature leaves us with instinctive fear that even the most spiritually trusting may find difficult to overcome. (One thing I find sad is that I'm afraid to bring up my fears of death with some of the people I love the most, because I don't accept their answer of trusting in God.)

Also, for the believer, having a comforting philosophy might be a reverse form of Pascal's Wager, (the idea that you might as well believe, since hey, whaddya got to lose?) a backup comfort in times of doubt.

Lifespan And Our Perception of Time

"I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different."
--Kurt Vonnegut

Life can seem all too short.

Compared to the length of the universe, it's an eyeblink.

But compared to some other things we consider really long lasting: republics and empires, many buildings-- most of us don't do so bad.

My grandmother, who died at the age of 82 in 2001, witnessed over a third of the history of the United States...

sure that's just a fraction, and yes the USA is a young country, but consider all the change that she has seen: it is a huge expanse of time.

Time is largely subjective. I have a reasonable shot at living longer than my grandmother, and experiencing even more change in the world.

In the book "Faster", Gleick mentions how our perception of time is really a measure of rate of change, driven by the length of time between 'interesting' events.

This can lead to some unfortunate results: since, in general, every decade of our life has much less change (in the form of development and maturation) than the one before,

by some estimates the second half of our life might seem to go by twice as the first, with the second quarter going twice as fast as the first quarter, etc.

This might be so. I haven't lived long enough to refute it.

But I think that if I manage to fill my life with changes: learning, reading, thinking- and keeping track of those changes, I might help to modify my perception.

I think I'm helped by my journal (an ongoing collection of quotes and bon mots, and then a private "dear diary" journal I keep on my website) as well as my poor memory.

My inability to clearly recall things from as short as a week ago- but being reminded by them by the entries in my journal- helps me realize how full of life those ten thousand minutes were, and how full the next ten thousand will be.

So much can happen in a minute, if only we stay alert to the wonder around us!

Sleep and its Relationship to The End

"But what is all this fear of and opposition to oblivion?
What is the matter with the soft darkness, the dreamless sleep?"
--James Thurber

I read a very good book: Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained.

One of the things the work made me realize is that I'm not always as conscious as I think I am.

My inner voice, literally the voice in my head that I used to identify as "me", is often silent--

the systems that are always buzzing my head don't always marshal themselves up into a distinct speech pattern.

In fact, I'm running on autopilot most of the time-- the pandemonium that makes up my mind isn't always- as a 'group', or at least on the level that makes itself known to itself as a whole- aware of what it's up to.

The book makes a very good case for a view of the mind as this series of competing/co-operating systems

(and argues very strongly against the idea of some 'inner-self' where the self and thinking 'really' happens, serviced by all the outer processes of subconsciousness and perception),

sometimes using language as a framework,

sometimes using other methods of imitating our sense-impressions to take advantage of our specialized perception systems.

My own introspection goes further, (though of course one of the points of the book is that we should take our own internal observations with a large grain of salt,) and says that I'm not always aware of what's going on.

If I desire to, I can think metathoughts- thoughts about my thoughts- and metametathoughts, and metametametathoughts, and so on all the way up-- that's what consciousness is all about.

But I usually don't.

And, like all you other mammals out there, I sleep.

Perchance to dream-- but only sometimes.

Sometimes I'm "out like a light". Well, not completely-- I'm sure that some one could hook up some sensors to my head, and clearly see a fair amount of happy neurochemical humming and bopping, even when I'm in deepest of deep sleep.

But not to me-- I may not be dead to the world (as long as the world has sufficiently sensitive instruments) but I'm dead to myself.

So what's the point? It's like Poe said: "Sleep... those little slices of death; O how I loathe them!"

He was expressing a frustration with having to spend so much of his life in a comatose state.

And he has a point: sleep seems to make our finite lifespans even more finite.

And yet-- and yet, it's a safe way of practicing for what we all will finally come to.

Yes, the idea of "death as sleep" is hardly new, but I hope by pointing out how it won't be a totally new experience,

how even when we're awake and about we aren't necessarily awake in the ways we find most important to our sense of selves,that I can make the lack of our selves in the universe less frightening--

especially given the fact that, by definition, we won't be there to be scared at that time.

The Dangerous Myth of Eternity

"But I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me."
--Richard Feynman

There's an old chestnut of a story, where there's a powerful King (some say Solomon)

He is searching for an artifact-or may just a bit of wisdom- that would make a sad man happy and a happy man sad.

One of his servants brings back a ring inscribed with "This too shall pass."

The Universe won't last forever.

Nothing is forever, except for the fact that... nothing is forever.

Does this scare you? It shouldn't. By the definition of the universe, the nature of being, nothing can be more natural, more fundamental to everything.

But of course it scares us.

As creatures who live only a few levels beyond our instincts, we like things to be consistent.

Stasis might be boring, but predictablity is safer than chaos.

And we want to extend that desire for predictability for as long as we can imagine, which is forever.

It's not just our instincts that tell us to hope for eternity: our culture and religion do as well.

I blame my years of faith for leading me to expect things-- anything-- to be able to last forever and ever, world without end, Amen.

Without that mythology, I might be more able to accept the universe that science-

(thoughtful, peer-reviewed, testable-hypothesis science, our very best way of knowing things about the world-) tells us that it probably is.

Time to Waste

"Time which you enjoyed wasting was not wasted"
--G.K. Chesterton

Another thing that troubles us about mortality is the idea that we're not going to have time to do the things we need to do.

Even if we don't know what that is-- and I'm not sure that anyone really does-- we worry that we won't have time to do it in.

(It's like John Cage said when Life magazine asked him and other notables "Why Are We Here?"--"No why. Just here.")

Life can't have meaning except what we find in it.

We should be nice to each other and do unto others.

We should be gentle and kind and forgiving and generous.

Patient with others as well as yourself.

Besides these ideas, it's up to you to work out your destiny.

There's a good chance that you'll be happier if you're not a crusader, or at least not a crusader all the time.

So once you figure out what part of your life you need to devote to the causes are important to you,

once you take into account the time you need to spend at work,

to keep body and soul together,

your time is yours.

If you can fill it with exciting adventure, living one big beer commercial of a lifetime, that's good.

If you live in simpler circumstances, if you rarely look beyond a night of tv, a few beers, a good book... that can be fine as well, so long as you can be fine with it.

(Romantic love help as well; most people can find if it they search, but almost everyone will be stuck without it for some period in their life.)

So figure out what makes you happy, and do it;

be content in the fact that you can do things to make you happy,

and don't worry that time is wasting or that you don't have forever to waste time in;

you have your own lifespan, and that's all anyone will ever have or has ever had.

Time Isn't Lost

"The past resembles the future as water resembles water"
--Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406)

Here's another change of perspective I found useful: I used to place no value on the past.

Now, I see that to have a realistic appreciation of my life, I can't be so casual about disregarding an ever growing part of it!

Time is past, present, and future.

Besides the standard advice of being in the moment, and appreciating the time at hand, people need to learn to value their own past experience,

to see the days gone by as little precious items that we peruse and enjoy in and of themselves.

(Not that you should 'live in the past' either while you still have plenty of living in front of you.)

Our optimistic natures cause us to always look to the future, to make up for the shortcomings of the past, to have a chance to accomplish the things we've always wanted to do.

But our pasts live on, in our selves, and we need to treat ourselves with the respect we deserve.

Finding The Point

" 'Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-- 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' "
--Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

I suppose one risk of over-rationalizing death is failing to appreciate life.

When you manage to stop fearing the idea of dying, you had better make damn sure you appreciate why you're living-

doubly so if you're a skeptic without a Deity telling you taking your own life is wrong.

I can't tell you why life is worth living, or what the point of life is,

though I suspect part of the point is to figure out what the point is.

I do think life is better than death because it's interesting; that alone is a start of a reason to keep dancing.


I wrote this text in 2000, and turned it into a 100 panel webcomic in 2011 for 24 Hour Comics Day.

I tweaked the text only slightly for the conversion. It's probably overdue for a rewrite, but I think it holds up fairly well, and I think change of rhythm with the panels works ok.

Plus, it works! I've had almost no anxiety-laden nights in the decade since writing this. And over the years I've received email from other people who found it comforting as well.

I'm always up for chatting about this, .

Plus, if you haven't seen it already, you might want to check out the page of Mortality-related quotes I've been acquiring along the way.