Science Writing

Before Birth, After Death

I have no memory before I was born.

If I close my eyes and try to think back to what it was like, try to search for some glimpse of light amongst the infinite blackness of that time, I quickly find myself fleeing from existential dread with my tail between my legs.

I recommend you try it now. Close your eyes and try to think, or even imagine, what you experienced before you were born.

If you’re like me, you imagine blackness. Utter darkness devoid of light or life. The thought is terrifying and the the thought surrounds us; it presses in on us when we least expect it, creeping into our awareness is a sense of something too vast to comprehend, too horrifying to imagine.

Nothingness.

The absence of anything.

There is no way to know what happens before birth, much like there is no way to know what happens after we die.

They could be the same thing; they could be nothing.

Or perhaps, before you were who you are, you might have been someone or something else. You might have lived a different life, many different lives, all in succession, one after the other, after the other, after the other…

Unitl what?

Is every person a different version of someone else?

There is a brilliant and very short story called The Egg by Andy Weir (I will link it below). This story postulates the idea that every human is one being that is sent back again and again to live different lives until it has lived everything single life and then, this being, now galvanised by the cumulative lessons of all humanity, is ready to grow into its next stage of life.

I like this idea. I don’t believe it; after all, it is only a story. But I like it.

The point of The Egg is to make the reader broaden their view and open the door to empathy for everyone, regardless of who they are.

As I said, I like the story, but when I close my eyes and try to think about what it was like before I existed, I find no solace in the words on the page; they get smothered by the darkness, like everything else.

Perhaps then, there is an answer outside of fiction.

It is hard to find research as to what happens before we are born and even the question of when a human becomes a human after being conceived is fraught with falsities and half-truths.

Does the darkness stop when the egg is fertilised? Is the nothingness pierced by light after eight weeks? Ten? Fifteen?

Could it be later than that? What do you remember from your childhood?

My earliest memory is my second birthday party, and even this I can’t be sure hasn’t been formed by my brain in response to photos or stories told my relatives.

Does that mean, before my second birthday party, I didn’t exist? Obviously, my body did but did I? Did the person who is me exist at that point? Was I self-aware or did that come later, did that only start after I turned two and had a bright yellow cake in the shape of the number on the deck of my house?

If you follow that line of reasoning, you will come to the final years, or days of your life. When you are old, your memory has gone (either naturally or via a disease), and you start to lose key moments of your life to time. Is that person, the ninety, or eighty, or one hundred year old person still you? You can’t remember who you are, who your family is, where you are or what you are doing. All you have are a collection of flashes and intrinsic behaviours that form someone new. Someone you and your family may not even recognise were it not for the physical features you posses.

Are you still you? Or has that darkness that exists before and after death already found you?

Where does life start?

And where does it end?

To me, it is the same place, and though the idea fills me with horror, there is nothing there.

The Egg by Andy Weir The Egg (galactanet.com)

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