NOTE: Some of you who come across this series will not like it. You will think it too morbid and that is fine. I’ll leave it here so you can come back one day when you are ready for it. - RB
“Today is the first day of the rest of your short, brutish existence as a sentient creature before being snuffed out into utter nothingness for all eternity.”
- The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening
That is the crux, isn’t it, of the fear of death - that no part of our personality, none of our sense of self, survives.
“The thing I like least about entering middle age is that I now not only know people who have died, but also people who are dying. And it becomes so painfully clear that I, too, will die. It's not that ‘it all comes back to me,’ but some of it does. I won't deny it.”
It is all about “me,” Tim, for each of us, each in his and her own time. Unless one’s faith in an afterlife is unshakeable, knowledge of the certainty of our own death, when it first strikes, is a terrible, horrifying thing to behold. It struck me hard the first time when I was 11 years old.
Death was one of the two big-deal ideas I rolled around in my head at night, in those days, after Mom or Dad had told me to turn out the light and go to sleep. The nature of eternity was the other and although they are related, I dwelt mostly on death, on the impossibility of it applying to me. Intellectually, I knew it did, but the fear of it made my mouth dry and my chest heave and took my breath away. The only escape was to shove the idea away, bury it deep, deep, deep and think of something else. But it always returned the next night or the next week. Always.
A decade later, in the early afternoon of my 21st birthday, I strolled alone along the seawall where I then lived, in Sausalito, California. It was an important occasion, a life passage of consequence. I could now legally drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes and vote and sign contracts. I was an adult now for real - in the eyes of the law and of society and I wanted to mark this event with some private accounting of who I was, where I’d been, where I was going, what I believed or didn’t believe.
Part of that inventory was wondering how much longer I would live meaning, of course, when would I die. I found it no problem at all to hold two conflicting beliefs: I knew I would die someday and I also believed I was the one earthly immortal. I concentrated on the immortal part, because the fear from thinking about the dying part had diminished not one iota from ten years before.
Because we must get up and go to work and pay the bills and clean the house and see the dentist and do the taxes and blog and all the rest, there is not a lot of time to think about death, our own deaths, with any frequency or attention. And that is a good thing – some of the time.
But the fear doesn’t vanish for being ignored. It lies there beneath the surface of everyday stuff tingeing life a little bit grayer than it needs to be, ready to erupt when you are not expecting it - for instance, Tim, when a friend becomes gravely ill or some old lady you know only from cyberspace breaks the taboo against talking about it freely.
“To not think of dying is to not think of living.”
- Jann Arden
…to be continued…
NOTE: I hesitated to post this now because two series at once might be confusing particularly when the two subjects are difficult for some readers to address. It makes sense, however, that A Mother's Last, Best Lesson series has raised this other issue and I want to set down my thoughts while they are fresh. I have pondered the mystery of mortality all my life, but this is the first time I have written about it. Besides, I've never been any good at small talk, so here are two series that may end up complementing one another.