Like “Where is Everybody,” this episode stars the clock. When Lew Bookman receives a death sentence, or more properly a prosaic announcement that he’ll die at midnight, he becomes intensely aware of time. A person in solitary confinement is also at the mercy of time, in part by losing the ability to track it. Here our hero is an elderly man who sells trinkets on the street – a pitchman, a neighborhood fixture adored by the children. But when death comes knocking, he’s not ready, because he has never achieved the ultimate pitch – a pitch for the angels. He’s also not ready because no one is. No matter how much we have lived, we love life and we don’t want to die. The mistake of the young is that they think that life is psychologically different for older people. In fact, we lock in to a psychological age, and feel ourselves typically to be young people throughout our lives. Just as few young persons are ready for death, so are few older folks either.
Bookman’s goal is to achieve something special during his life, and he has to literally race against time, distracting Mr. Death until after midnight in order to reach it. That act of distraction – the ultimate pitch – is also the crowning achievement. What is the special achievement? Why is it so important for Bookman to make the ultimate pitch? It’s not self-serving. It is to save the life of another. He’s an unlikely hero on the battlefield.
That death isn’t to be feared, that it is ordinary, that it is our shared destiny, is a theme in many Twilight Zone episodes, and the vehicle that conveys this idea is often the personification of death. In this episode, Death is a youthful, friendly, but apparently efficient professional man. In “Nothing in the Dark,” it’s a compassionate young man played by a young Robert Redford.
The question of whether it is rational to fear death has been asked since ancient times. The late Roman poet Lucretius, a member of the Epicurean School, argued that if death is the end of the person, and in death one does not have any experiences, then, it is irrational to fear death. If death is nothing, then there is literally nothing to fear. In contrast, it is rational to fear trauma from an accident, since an accident may result in a state in which one experiences pain.
Lucretius’s argument is still widely discussed today, and philosophers have come up with interesting ways to challenge it. Feldman (1992) distinguishes between things that are bad for you intrinscially, such as feelings of pain or discomfort, and things that are bad for you extrinsically, such as the loss of an opportunity that would have afforded you significant pleasure or happiness, if you had been able to take it. We can say that it is bad or unfortunate for you that you weren’t able to take a vacation last summer, though it wasn’t intrinsically bad. Feldman’s suggestion is that death can be bad for you in the same sense that it can be bad for you to miss a vacation. It is extrinsically bad. He concludes from this that it is rational to fear death when death is extrinsically bad.
Is death ever not extrinsically bad? Couldn’t one always lament the potential loss of opportunities to experience pleasure and happiness? To answer this, we have to note that what is extrinsically good or bad is relative to one’s current situation, and to what it is plausible for you to be able to expect for the future. If you are able to engage in activities that bring you happiness, then death is extrinsically bad for you, since it will bring about an end to those activities. If, however, you are in constant pain and unable to engage in any happy pursuit, then death may cease to be something to be feared, and it may instead be something you would welcome.
Feldman, Fred, 1992, Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death, Oxford University Press.