The Prelife

I have resigned myself to die many times over, but I have been lucky. I wasn’t shot in Paris. I didn’t fall off the North Ridge variation. I wasn’t killed by rock fall, or struck by the falling body. The avalanche didn’t push me over the cliff. I recovered from my pneumonia and I stopped rolling before I went under the car.

I have known others who had similar experiences and the same good fortune. One guy fell from the top of an ice climb and punctured his lung. When he got out of the hospital, he sold all his gear and quit climbing. Another locked the back brake on his motorcycle at 60 mph to slip behind the car he was passing. In doing so, he avoided a head-on collision with a truck, and barely kept his machine upright through the ensuing fishtail slide. After he pulled off the road and dismounted, he never climbed back on a bike again. On the other hand, another guy I know survived altitude sickness on Denali, came down and bought a para-glider  Then there was the friend who took fall after fall, and each time climbed farther from his protection than the last, until he began to eschew the rope altogether.

The first group, those who escaped a close call and chose to hoard the life that might remain to them, were wrong. Time kept in a vault sustains nothing in the end, it simply perishes. However, the second group, those who saw themselves as survivors specially blessed by fortune, were also wrong. No such privilege exists. Of all the people I’ve encountered who confronted death, the only ones who seemed to get it right every time were those who died.

I have seen a lot of people die. On the road, in the snow, in bed and on gurneys, the people I have seen die have done so in quiet, while the people around them wept and wailed. I think that arrangement reflects the truth more than any other set scene we might devise to frame the end of a life. Those remaining mourn for themselves; they are the ones who have lost something. The dying become quiet because they return to the prelife

The prelife is an individual’s condition before they come to be conscious, when their heritage and senses have yet to generate the identity necessary for experience. No one recalls the moment they pass from prelife to life any more than anyone recalls the exact moment that they fall asleep. No one fears or laments the time before they first woke any more than they fear the moment that they go to sleep, when they come to it (even if they are the worst insomniac existentialist).

It is easy for us to accept the necessity of our preconditions. It is more difficult for us to accept the necessity of our post-conditions, though they are actually much the same as the circumstances that conspired to bring us about, except of course, for the fact that we have been.

So, we make up bedtime stories for ourselves about afterlives. Stories of this kind are necessary to get us through the uncertainties of childhood when we lack the experience to allay our anxiety about the unknown. In those stories though, the dead are truly lost to us, as their lives become a token of their true existence at best. Worse, each person is lost to themselves from the start, as they are, in the end, separated from the determinants and contents of their lives as a whole and are left with a remnant, and a stagnant one at that, if we believe the claims of eternity in those yarns.

Read through from a mature perspective, the accounts of paradise sound more like dark, German fairy tales than lullabies. A ghost condemned to wander a pleasant meadow will be just as miserable as one who haunts a swamp. Lucky for us,  afterlife stories are only a class of fiction. We won’t be condemned to an endless disassociation. We may expect instead to return to the prelife when we die.

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5 thoughts on “The Prelife

  1. Borut Kantušer says:

    Would you not say that the genetic heritage and sensorial experiences before consciousness (memory) can be considered as experience, pre-conscious life experience? Do we really need an identity to take advantage of that?

    PS: what happened in Paris?

    • keithnoback says:

      Actually I agree with you, as those factors seem necessary to establish identity and identity seems like a basic component of consciousness – reflective or pre-reflective.
      My Belgian friend (who did not like Parisians in the first place) said something in English to someone who he assumed, based on appearances, did not speak English. Turns out the guy did speak English, so my friend guessed wrong about that, though he was right about the guy being high on heroin. In fact, the guy sold heroin too, which, he explained, was why he had the small-caliber revolver tucked in his belt, why the street we were standing on was one of “his” streets, and why he should shoot us for standing there being smart-asses. Who knows how serious he really was, but he was wasted and nobody was around so we were very polite, my friend apologized to him, and he did not shoot us.

  2. From the anecdotes I’ve heard, reactions that people have after near-death experiences do vary widely; however, saying that the only people that have “gotten it right” every time are the ones that died, is rather provocative. 🙂

    There is probably a continuum between completely withdrawing from risky activities to try to live longer, and thrill-seeking that borders on suicidal. As far as I can tell, that few people deeply question what experiences they value, and why, is a factor. Spending an eternity jumping out of planes, ice and rock climbing without safety equipment, and riding motorcycles could (after the initial excitement) end up just as boring as spending an eternity in a peaceful meadow. Do you think activities bear repeating when the resulting experience is the not likely to be qualitatively different?

    I suppose a related question is, do you consider yourself a nihilist? I can see why the view that the non-existence before and after having lived are roughly equivalent is intuitively appealing. The person without that is in a state of pre-life or post-life has no consciousness, it scarcely makes sense to even talk about a non-existent person. In pre- or post-life, there is no way we can experience fear, or even decry the inconvenience of non-existence. But if we look at being alive as, in any way, valuable, then value could be gained if it were possible to have been alive earlier or survive longer. Many people would, after all, value experiences such as being able to see certain historic events, talk to people that have been long deceased, or see what the distant future will look like.

    I think I could find comfort in thinking nothing matters; that when I die the return to non-existence will be inconsequential. From that perspective I shouldn’t fear dying. But I see value in being alive and conscious, and I see value in the full spectrum of experiences. So instead I’m trying to juggle the trade-off between staying alive, and seeking experiences that might be novel, but ultimately have a higher probability of causing my death. And though I want to avoid death, keeping the value gained from experiences in mind helps me decide what I should let fear keep me from doing. And I try my hardest not to fear falling asleep. 🙂

    • keithnoback says:

      It’s interesting that you mention repetition. When my kids were little, my brother-in-law would always make the sage remark, “Kids love repetition.” just before he set down their favorite book or movie in front of them. He was right, they wanted the same old story or picture more than they wanted something new.
      I finally realized that the same old story or picture was an experience they sought because they were different every time they looked at it, and to a greater degree than with a new story which they often lacked the background to properly assimilate. I think that is true of us as adults too – we are motivated by things which change us, whether it’s transformation or refinement, not mere novelty or intensity of experiences themselves.
      Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you say “value” I take it to mean something roughly equivalent to “am motivated by” rather than a reference to some deontological project. Of course, that sort of valuing is what we (and every other living thing) are all about – a very non-controversial statement :). I do not climb without a rope without very careful consideration. So, by thought and action I think I can safely say I am not a nihilist. I am just a skeptic about the extent of our knowledge and what we really are talking about when we discuss overall meaning and “objective” value (I think an error theory applies). On the same grounds, I am hesitant to talk about three peripheral subjects in particular: climbing ethics, person-hood, and the psychology of risk. In the interest of avoiding a tedious global armagedon, I’m going to dodge those issues.

      • It is interesting that young children often seem to have an intrinsic desire to seek repetition of events. It wasn’t entirely clear whether you meant that the same story or picture was different or the child experiencing it. I think, in a sense, both are different upon each repetition – the story, for details that went unnoticed earlier, and the child, for having formed a more detailed representation of the story in their mind. Of course, the minds of children are constantly changing between readings of the story too.

        I don’t think repetition is without value. Refinement through repetition is often a requirement for getting good at any skill or for memorisation, whether an adult or a child. A transformation of the mind can even be achieved in the midst of repetition by changing focus and exploring details and new points of view. But in some cases it might be easier to find these transformative insights and learn by looking for novel experiences that encourage new modes of thinking.

        I wish it seemed generally true that adults were motivated to seek things that change them – to transform and refine themselves. This is one of my main motivations, but I think many people simply seek satisfaction of basic desires.

        My terminology might not be up to scratch; my use of the term “value” has been influenced by the numerical quantification of “value” used in machine-based reinforcement learning. I did mean “value” in the sense of some perceived (or possibly inherent) worth, which would certainly be a source of motivation. Definitions seem vitally important in philosophical discussions, so I’m in the process of trying to clarify terms and refine my views on meaning, “objective” vs “subjective” values, good and morality. I’m hoping to write more on these thoughts on my blog sometime in the future.

        I’m wasn’t really aware of climbing ethics until now, but it does seem, like the other topics, rather fraught. Although I do enjoy opportunities for transformation and refinement. 🙂


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