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On Dying Many Deaths

The fact that we die a little every day is well established. It’s been said countless different ways by countless different people, and we’ve all internalized this knowledge to some extent.  The simplest understanding of this axiom is that every minute/hour/day brings us a little closer to our inevitable end. From this comes the idea that we should seize the day and live well while we still have the chance, which, of course, we should.

But there’s another meaning to this postulate with which I identify strongly, though it’s not an original thought of mine. I’ve heard it mentioned in discussions of mindfulness and read versions of it in Stoic texts, and I’m sure it can be attributed to plenty of thinkers from plenty of other traditions that I’m not familiar with.

The meaning of the truism that we “die a little everyday” that is most significant to me is that life consists of a nonstop procession of little versions of ourselves, and that these are constantly coming into and going out of being. They spring up, exist for a while (though I admit that it’s a little fuzzy where exactly they start and stop), and then pass out of existence along with their unique circumstances, worldviews, hopes, dreams, and myriad possibilities.

This alternate meaning has been on my mind a lot lately, especially the idea of past versions of myself passing out of existence, and I’ve found that this ongoing process of continuous “deaths” has been an excellent consolation in the face of that big, final death. I already spend a lot of time pondering death, as should any good Stoic (or any crappy Stoic who refuses to stop trying, as the case may be), and the nonstop dying that we experience over the course of our lives is an excellent tool for strengthening that meditation.

All of my past selves were, in their present, a distinct “Me.” They had unique experiences, memories, and aspirations, and couldn’t have guessed what the future had in store for the current “Me” who is writing this article.

They were all that I was, with their past being in the past and their future being obscure, and they acted in their own self interest and worked towards goals which were their own. But they’re gone now, and have been replaced by a succession of “Mes” which has ended in my present iteration. Those distinct moments of consciousness are finished.

I have their memories, which reflect the actual past with middling accuracy, but other than that these past versions of myself no longer exist. Their struggles are over.

Their efforts and their output have been added to the unfolding of humanity and the universe, and now they are gone and know no more.

They passed out of existence without really being aware of it, and now they’re dead and are none the worse for it. Whatever pain or happiness or longing or loss they experienced has concluded, and that’s that. To be honest, I only vaguely remember most of my past selves, if at all. Whatever impact they made shaped the person I currently am, but I’m not able to accurately articulate much of what they actually did.

Basically, one way to describe my life up to this point is as a succession of little versions of me doing their best, disappearing, and being clueless about what comes next. A succession of deaths.

With this in mind, I ask myself: When I do die that final death, what will the difference be between it and all of the myriad deaths that have preceded the final one?

In terms of my experience as the one who is dying, there will be the knowledge that my present iteration won’t be followed by another.

But if the last twenty-nine years are any indication, there’s no need to be perturbed by this impending nonexistence. Because even if my present version were to be followed again by others ad infinitum, none of those that preceded the latest one would know anything about it, and wouldn’t be harmed at all by being replaced.

As far as I know, past versions of myself are unaware of their nonexistence, and are not suffering because of it. How could they? It’s ridiculous to even consider the possibility.

So, when the time comes, what will that final version of me have to fear? Not a thing.

Dying is easy when you’ve done it countless times already.

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