‘Conscience does make cowards of us all’

I’m with Hamlet on this one, though I think we have different understandings of what “conscience” means. What he had in mind (I think) is more like consciousness, i.e., of what lies ahead after we die. For Hamlet death is a bit of a Rumsfeldian known unknown: We know it’s a thing, but we have no clue what sort of a thing it is. In a sense then, Hamlet’s “conscience” is really fear of the unknown. Better the devil you know—life—than the one you don’t—death (perhaps with actual devils).

My own interpretation of “conscience” has more moral overtones. I’m pretty sure I know what comes after death, at least for the dead person, and that is basically nothing. More concerning is the aftermath (or afterlife) for those left behind. And that’s whence my own cowardice arises. While I’m skeptical that my death would cause much consternation, I can’t rule out the possibility that two or three folks would feel pretty miserable for a while. And I don’t want that misery on my conscience, even if my conscience no longer exists.

There are certainly cogent economic reasons for shuffling off this mortal coil sooner rather than later. What struggling musician wouldn’t want to inherit a house worth more than half a million dollars? Especially when the alternative is having the house sold out from under you, with a portion of the proceeds going to the bomber-in-chief as capital gains tax. Sure, there’d be an appropriate amount of mourning and self-flagellation, but after a few weeks or months people would realize that this was the only sensible course.

Or would they? And there’s the rub: I can’t predict other people’s suffering any better than Hamlet could predict his own. The fact is that about 7.5 billion people wouldn’t give a hoot about my death, and about a dozen others would probably breathe a sigh of relief or be downright ecstatic. It’s that middle ground of 8 or 10 people who would find it disturbing, at least for a while.

I’m with Rick Nelson on this one. “You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” If only I knew what would please my self.


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