There has long been an association between sleep, and death. First of all, obviously, there's that oft-repeated sentiment, found on some gravestones, in eulogies and obituaries and in memorials: "Requiescat In Pace", which is often translated to, and literally means - Rest in Peace; associating death with resting. There's a popular quote from 17th Century poet Thomas Traherne - “Sleep is cousin-german unto death: Sleep and death differ, no more, than a carcass And a skeleton.” [Author's Note: cousin-german means "first cousins"], which speaks for itself. Also, there's the 1947 poem "Do Not Go Gentle into that Goodnight" by Dylan Thomas, the titular line of which refers to dying as 'that goodnight', a phrase often used to farewell someone going to sleep.
When someone is deeply sleeping, they're often referred to as "dead to the world" - in fact, in my family, when a baby is sleeping in a pram, we might refer to them as a "dead kid" (this is commonplace, right? We're not weird, you're weird...).
There's also a somewhat popular Tumblr meme, which refers to sleep as "death without the commitment", and various other puns on sleep and death, like "sleep is a free trial of death".
It kind of makes sense. After all, both usually involve lying down, moving less and not taking part in society.
But this free association between the two, in my opinion, leads us down a disturbing path, because of the existence of dreams...
For, when we are asleep, we often dream - we live a sort of pseudo-life, which can be beautiful and fantastical and allow us to achieve things we always wished to in life; or, we occasionally experience nightmarish scenarios of being chased and tormented. This may lead one to assume that similarly, when we die, we also "dream" in a sense - living a sort of after-like, which can be beautiful, or tormentous.
I'm not religious, I'm aspiritual and I'm a skeptic, so I don't really believe in the afterlife - it is my opinion that when you die, you are dead, and any notion that some part of you "survives death" is not only inherently paradoxical, but nonsensical.
However, because I'm an agnostic, I am willing to say that there may possibly be some post-life experience. I don't think that makes scientific sense, but until we fully understand the mechanism of life, death, consciousness and mind, there does remain the distinct possibility that my assumptions about dying are wrong.
However, unless and until we understand all those mechanisms, jumping right in the deep-end and saying "yeah, we die, and it's just like when we dream" is not only stupid and wrong, it's also deeply disturbing.
For one, you might think that I'm jumping the gun by saying that people assume that after-life is like dreaming, but honestly, the Judeo-Christian concepts of Heaven and Hell sound a lot like "living the dream" and "suffering through an eternal nightmare". And to me, it explains the dichotomy between how some people interpret death. Some theists believe that after death, we experience nothing (like a dreamless sleep), some believe that everyone, no matter what, will go to a peaceful afterlife (like a dreamful sleep), whereas some believe that if you're bad, you'll either be annihilated, or experience something horrible (having a nightmare). It also explains how there are so many wild and various explanations for how these "spiritual places" look, since to each dreamer, their dream will be differently surreal.
Yes, there's more specifics in mythologies, but both of them include personified dream manifestations (in the form of angels or devils) and both seem to be magical, breaking many known laws of physics, which makes sense if they're built upon dream logic.
Oddly enough, I'm not actually writing this post to make fun of religion. I know it seems like it after some of that, but it's not actually the point. See, what truly inspired me was a moment when I was a wee, young, child. I've said in the past that I never truly considered myself religious. I was "raised Christian", but I never truly believed, I just assumed that others knew the answers to the parts that made no sense, and I'd come to understand it later. Well, when I was about ten years old, it was late at night, and I think I was distracted by a particular thought... "What is heaven like?"
I'd seen it represented in movies and television shows as being a place in the clouds. But... I'd been in a plane, and I hadn't seen heaven, so I knew it wasn't actually in the sky. But, was it just foggy? The point is, I didn't know, and I didn't understand how anyone could know, since all the people who had "seen it" were definitely dead.
It was occupying my mind, so I went to ask my father. I think it must have been like 11 o'clock at night, since I got out of bed, and called out for my parents (I assume - this was a long time ago). But what I remember is that next, I was having a conversation with my father in the hallways outside my bedroom. Well, I say it was a conversation, but it was probably just:
"Hey Dad?"; "What's up?"; "What's heaven like?"
And what my Dad said to me, I don't know if he actually believes this, or he just said it to shut me up and make me go back to bed. But he said: "It's whatever you want it to be."
But, since my Dad said it, it was official - one of the smart people told me, so I believed it. So, I said goodnight, he went back to bed, and so did I.
But, in bed, I was thinking somewhat excitedly to myself. "Huh, whatever you want it to be, wouldn't that be something?" and I was planning on sleeping, but I thought to myself "What do I want it to be?"
Now, I was probably ten at the time, and I was thinking, I wouldn't want it to be like ordinary life - everyone knows, if you get the chance to wish for something, you don't ask for something you already have. You might not get this opportunity again, you have to ask for something really cool...
And I was thinking, what's cool to me? Well, at the time, I had recently visited my cousins, and played a videogame on their computer, called Croc. That was kind of a fun game, challenging, but a weird world. So I thought "hey, what if I wanted heaven to be JUST LIKE CROC! That would be so cool!" - look, I was a child, alright? So, as I was getting tired, I was imagining what it would be like to actually be Croc, running around, with the ability to jump really high, collecting gems and stuff. I was starting to drift off... then I was snapped awake, when I realized. Huh... Mum and Dad don't like to play Croc.
What if they don't want heaven to be like that? Everyone who dies goes to heaven, right? So, how would that work? Well, that's okay, I figure since Dad had said "it's whatever you want it to be", I interpreted that as being a royal you - all persons get what they want, so they must get what they want as well...
But wait, if everyone gets what they want, what if people want different things? What if one person loves another person, but that person doesn't love them back - they couldn't be forced to love them, that wouldn't be fair... Well, maybe if you want something from certain people, then you get a fake person instead. That's makes sense, right? After all, what if you want to spend life in heaven with your friend, but your friend goes to hell? They'd have to be fake, otherwise you'd never get "what you want".
But then... how would you tell who was real, from who wasn't? It would have to be impossible to tell, otherwise you wouldn't have "what you want", but that means that everyone has the same potential of being a fake person. In fact, since most people wouldn't want to be changed, then most people in your dream would have to be fake, otherwise you're forcing them to live out the heaven you want, not the heaven they want.
Now, I was too young to have heard about the concept of a philosophical zombie, but that was essentially what I was disturbed by, the idea that you could never tell who, or what, was real. But I'd figured, okay, this is clearly a bit of a broken system... so, clearly, people must be put into separate "heaven countries" to live out their wants. It seems kind of lonely, but hey, at least you get what you want right? I mean, sure, people might be fake, but they seem real, and maybe God knows how to solve this paradox...
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that getting "whatever you want" is a horrifying ideal. After all, I GET BORED OF CROC. When I visited my cousins, I only played for ten minutes, then left to go do something with my cousins (since that's kind of the reason why we go to visit them, to spend time with them). Not to mention, Croc is kind of a sub-par game - I enjoyed it, but even as a kid, I knew that it was a pretty simple set of moves you could do in a mostly-empty world; the idea of spending an eternity in that world sounded so incredibly lonely.
But, okay, I have a solution... I was assuming that when you die, you get what you want at the time of death. So, if when I die I'm thinking "Man, I want a cheese sandwich", I'll spend eternity eating a cheese sandwich. That doesn't make sense though, since quite a few people, when they're dying think "I don't want to die", and that's kind of impossible. So, what if it's more dynamic?
What if the world changes, when you want it to? Yeah, almost like a lucid dream (hint-itty, hint, hint [this is what inspired me to write this post yet, are you seeing the connection, yet?]).
So, I might want to be Croc, but later I might want to fly, and after that, maybe spend time with my family and heaven-friends, so I could want that, and go do that.
But wait... I'm just a kid (at least, I was at the time), and I don't know what I want most of the time, and I often want all kinds of different things - "I want this toy, I want chocolate, I want to go to Dreamworld" - sometimes I couldn't make up my mind. I mean, I just wanted to be Croc a few seconds ago, until I thought about it and realized that it was as depressing as it was horrifying. Does that mean that my every whim that passes my mind would change the world around me? After all, Dad didn't say "it's whatever you decide you want", or even "whatever you want, that's a good idea" it was just "whatever you want".
So without asking, perhaps without even fully comprehending what I want, I would be stuck in this constantly-shifting, surreal landscape of artificial people, experiencing the things I want for the brief moment that I think them. So, if heaven really was "whatever I like", I had two options. I'd either be stuck in one world, and get bored with it inevitably, since death is an eternity; or I'd be left awash in the waves of my unstable desires, hoping for a moment of peace, and only achieving it so long as I can becalm my torrential thoughts, and focus on one desire at a time.
At that point, I decided "well, heaven must not be like that at all, because that sounds horrible, and heaven is supposed to be nice". Then I went to sleep.
But, this is my fundamental issue of believing that death is like sleep, and the afterlife is like dreams. Because if heaven is dreamlike, then there isn't a heaven, there's just two hells. One where you're not in control, being tormented by nightmares, and another where you're in control, and either everything you do is meaningless because the world can change at the speed of thought, or it's an eternity trapped in a surreal landscape which, inevitably, you will tire of.
If you ask me, that would make Hell the lesser of two hells, since at least in Hell there's hope that you can fight to change things, you can at least run away when being chased. In Heaven, all problems go away, and there's nothing to strive towards - life would be hopeless, pointless and meaningless. And I figured all that shit out when I was ten years old.
So, all told, whilst I don't know what the "post-death" experience will be like, the idea of being dead is actually more comforting than some ideas people have about living in an afterlife fantasy. And if you think that dying is like going to sleep, I implore you... WAKE UP.
I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and this is the end of my Halloween Countdown for 2021. I'm trapped inside since I'm only half-vaccinated (at time of writing), and whilst I did a trick-or-treat thing last year, and it was kind of fun, I won't be this year because we're still dealing with coronavirus - and I implore that you do the same tomorrow. Most vaccines haven't been approved for children, meaning that kids are running around unvaccinated, and taking part in an event where you have to travel all around town, going to people's houses, and being handed stuff to put in your mouth is just asking for trouble.
So, unless you want your kids to get sick, and spread a deadly virus, please stay home and stay safe; enjoy Halloween with some holiday horror movies, and until next time... sleep tight.