June 15, 2011
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Surviving Death

Yi-Fu Tuan

[Dr. Tuan is no longer writing regular Dear Colleague letters. This is a special essay written for his readers.]

I’ve just finished reading a book called Surviving Death, a 393-page work written by Mark Johnston of Princeton University. I was astonished that an academic philosopher of distinction could write a book with such a title. He himself was teased by his colleagues when he confessed his project to them. What is Johnston’s position? Can he seriously believe in an afterlife, and if he does, what is the nature of that afterlife? I can’t hope to do justice to Johnston’s dense and subtle arguments. What follows, then, is my own limited understanding, my own extrapolations and--dare I say, insights?

Johnston’s position lies somewhere between two extremes that are commonly accepted in our time. One is the belief in bodily resurrection. On Judgment Day, the good will rise to Heaven, the bad will descend to Hell. For centuries, Christians have subscribed to this belief and many, the fundamentalists, still do. The other extreme, accepted by liberal secularists, is that our body will decay and become dust, but we will be remembered and, moreover, the consequences of our good deeds and fertile thoughts will linger on. You probably are not happy with either extreme, inclined to dismiss the one as pure superstition and the other as feeble consolation. If so, you have Johnston’s sympathy. He, for his part, argues for a vision of afterlife that is weaker than the one, that is to say, less materialistic and embodied, and stronger than the other, that is to say, more embodied than just fading memories and impacts. An incarnate afterlife is not, however, available to everyone. Only the good have access. This caveat appeals to me, for I have always wanted goodness to count seriously, and it seems to me that it cannot do so unless it has some sort of metaphysical grounding. That would seem to be Johnston’s position too. His argument for an incarnate afterlife is also a defense of the seriousness–the deep value–of goodness. Unfortunately, I am not bright enough to follow the intricacies of his argument. What I do have from reading him is a convincing psychology.

Good people are by definition selfless. Not being burdened by a tiresome self forever demanding attention and massaging, good people devote their mind and love to the outside world. Scientists can be selfless, so engrossed with nature’s mysteries that they forget sleep, even food. They dwell in nature’s mysteries, and are so de-centered as to become incarnate in the objects they study. When a student asked George Wald, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, how will he–the student–know that he has truly understood his subject, Wald’s reply was, “Do you know how it feels to be a molecule?” Now, extend this power of empathy to animate nature, and you have a more conventional picture of the good man or woman. Take the Samaritan, an archetype of goodness in the moral realm. He sees a wounded stranger by the roadside and he, for the moment, lives in that stranger, becomes that stranger, is incarnate or embodied in that stranger. He feels the stranger’s sense of abandonment, and immediately proceeds to help. He can no more step aside than he can refrain from drinking water when he is desperately thirsty. The “I” and the “he” are no longer separate. They have become one. The same psychology is at work when the good person identifies with the beauties of nature and of the world. He is not only a spectator. He not only watches and admires that which is before him, but has momentarily become it. He has put on the glory of the sunset, the majesty of a waterfall, the innocence of a baby, the courage of a firefighter, the cozy hospitality of a cottage, the pride of a skyscraper.

If you follow this line of thought, you will see that the good person cannot fear death. Death is feared for a variety of reasons, but at their root is the cessation of self, the end of a particular individual–ME! The good person is, however, someone who dies to self everyday so that the final cessation is no big deal. He dies to self not from morbidity or self hatred, but from an overflowing energy and the love of life. His own self is, to him, too confining. It is not that the good person lives in others, which can be a swelling of self into other people’s lives, with the dire result–whether consciously or subconsciously sought–of domination. Rather it is his delight in certain forms of virtue or goodness. Finding them too restricted by his own body and mind, the good person seeks their existence, both full blown and in kernel form, in other people, rejoicing and admiring where the goodness is ripe and nurturing where it is as yet only a promise. To the good person, the forms of virtue or goodness are of such importance that whether they are incarnate in him or in some other body fades into insignificance.

All right, you say, but at the end of the day, you still find what I have just said unconvincing, not so much from the defects of my reasoning as from the depth of your own personal experience. From such experience, you conclude, as I confess I often do myself, that this tangible, individual life that we call our own is all that is real, all that matters. Whatever else comes after is floss. But aren’t we deluded when we give that solidity–that reality–to our daily existence? Let me explain, using myself as an example. I feel very solid and real as I type this letter. You, my readers, are just shadows. On the other hand, what about the “me” of yesterday? What kind of a human being was I only twenty-four hours ago? I recall that I had cornflakes for breakfast, Sichuan chicken for lunch, and Ramen noodles for dinner. I read a book and answered my e-mails. I chatted pleasantly with friends. The funny thing is that I don’t remember my yesterday’s self as “I”, but as the third person singular “he.” And this “he” I don’t consider at all important, not only from an impersonal point of view, but also from the viewpoint of the “I” who now is busily typing a letter. So what is the loss to me when this “I” eventually dies, and all the virtues and qualities I value–the best part of me, the part that feels most real–literally live on and flourish in other people?

Good people survive death. Most of us–the moderately good–do so, too, though less solidly. The bad don’t. They don’t because they lack the ability to dwell in others; they are unable to see the way others see and feel the way others feel. “How does it feel to be a molecule?” The bad may be accomplished in abstract thought, but are unlikely to know how a molecule feels. Given this deficiency, even in science, they fail to reach the highest level of achievement. The ability to put oneself in the position of another makes one more objective, more impersonal. The bad are too sunk in the self and its needs to be objective and impersonal. When a bad person dies, the bad consequences of his deeds may live on. He is, however, only their cause. He can hardly be said to live on in the lives he has ruined. In the final analysis, bad people are mortal because subjectivity is mortal: it ends with the demise of the subject.

Now, let me return to the good person, provisionally defined as one who lives in others and for others, and beyond human beings and human reality, in the moth that circles the candle flame and in the overwhelming splendor of the aurora borealis. But the good person also lives in himself and for himself. He is kind to himself, thoughtful of himself, and nurtures what is best in his own being. But isn’t this selfishness? No, because the good person, in his impersonality, sees his own body and mind as the other, as no less the other than the abandoned man by the roadside who stirs the compassion of the good Samaritan. The good person is the good Samaritan even to himself. He is, after all, his nearest neighbor. He therefore fulfills his obligation and does all he can for himself, but, like the good Samaritan, he then moves on to other needs and deeds, to other virtues, to creation and its God–and seldom looks back.

Yi-Fu Tuan


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