The Valley of the Shadow
The following words were penned by Carl Sagan in 1996, during his long battle with a bone marrow disease. I found his perspective deeply moving and wanted to share below.
Four times now I have looked Death in the face. And four times Death has averted his gaze and let me pass. Eventually, of course, Death will claim me–as he does each of us. It’s only a question of when. And how.
I’ve learned much from our confrontations — especially about the beauty and sweet poignancy of life, about the preciousness of friends and family, about the transforming power of love.
In fact, almost dying is such a positive, character-building experience that I’d recommend it to everybody — except, of course, for the irreducible and essential element of risk.
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
I want to grow really old with my wife, Annie, whom I dearly love. I want to see my younger children grow up and play a role in their character and intellectual development. I want to meet still unconceived grandchildren. There are scientific problems whose outcomes I long to witness — such as the exploration of many of the worlds in our solar system and the search for life elsewhere. I want to learn how major trends in human history, both hopeful and worrisome, work themselves out: the dangers and promise of our technology, say; the emancipation of women; the growing political, economic and technological ascendancy of China; interstellar flight.
If there were life after death, I might, no matter when I die, satisfy most of these deep curiosities and longings. But if death is nothing more than an endless, dreamless sleep, this is a forlorn hope. Maybe this perspective has given me a little extra motivation to stay alive.
The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
Read the full essay here.