Been confronted with human mortality multiple times this past week.
The sister of a friend of my mother’s died.
A friend of mine, in the prime of her youth, has been hospitalized.
A teacher has left work for many weeks, due to sickness.
I don’t believe in destiny, but it’s almost as if Death rose up from his home beneath this world and grinned his skull-face and gave me a wink this week. To say, “Hey, don’t forget. You’re going to die one day, too.”
I’ve written about mortality before, and how I’ve accepted it, wholeheartedly. I try to remind myself daily that I’m going to die, and, morbid as it might seem to some people, it helps me to keep my life in perspective, get my priorities straight.
But it doesn’t make it any less scary. Especially when it happens to people around you, people you have known, and you sit there at home and wonder about the darkness they are wading through, lying on their hospital beds, emotions of regret, hope, desperation, eddying and swirling inside them.
Death is so, so, so scary. It’s scary to face the void. It’s scary to watch others slip into the void, and know you are destined for the same route. It’s scary to think that you don’t know what might happen next, that you might die before your dreams come to fruition, before your words see the light and are viewed by the world. I think, personally, that that’s the scariest thing of all. What if I don’t get published before I die? What if? What if?
When you’re given a reality shock like I have this past week, you can’t help but imagine what it would be like. How degrading it would be. I know a lot of people imagine pain, and sorrow, and their loved ones crying beside their hospital bed, but can you imagine how demeaning it is, to be a shivering lump of flesh beneath a sheet, raw and suffering? Forget philosophy, art, literature, and all the magical wonders that elevate us above apes, and makes us feel sophisticated and ethereal.
For, big and smart as you are, tiny mindless bacteria and viruses can dismantle your entire world, break down your limbs, turn your blood to thick soup, your muscles and sinews to feeble mush. We face the ultimate, primitive weakness within ourselves when we are dying – that we, in the end, like the other creatures of this Earth, are not Gods, but animals.
Only, when we’re well and living in a rich country, we can act lofty and worldly, and read our fine literature and sip our rich wines and wear our clothes and jewelry and think much of ourselves. But when we’re dying, when we’re sick, or when we’re without clothing, without food, without sustenance, we devolve back into a gibbering, anguished animal, as desperate and pitiful as a sick dog frothing at the mouth. And we don’t like that. We don’t like to face the primitive beasts within ourselves. We think we’re better than that. We sometimes think we’re unbeatable.
And it’s this complete and utter vulnerability that makes death so awful. For all your money, for all your intelligence, for all your kindness, for all your words, death will still knock you down, and pluck the life from your limbs, still the beating of your heart, and leave you nothing more than dead flesh, protein, coagulated amino acids.
And it doesn’t matter if we laugh in the face of death, if we spit in his face, or if we beg him to not take us, please, please, for God’s sake, I’m not ready, he still comes knocking at her door, in a jangle of bones, his dark orbits impenetrable, to take us away, quietly, quietly. We’re just fooling ourselves when we think our reaction to death matters, that being acting noble will somehow make things better, a feeble fist-shake in the impassive face of the universe. It doesn’t matter.
So what matters?
Well, if you want to take a nihilistic perspective of it, nothing, really. Yeah, that’s right. Nothing. Matters. But that makes everyday living rather difficult, so I’ll leave you with something else. Something that everyone harks on about but no-one seems to follow.
The only thing you can do is to die in peace. And the only way you can die in peace, is if you have accomplished what your heart yearned to do during your measly lifetime. Otherwise, Death will take you screaming in agony, the regret scorching through your soul like a million tiny deaths before the real one.
Yes, maybe it doesn’t matter whether you achieve your dreams or not, maybe the world won’t be the better or worse for it, but it’s better for you. That’s all you can hope for. To die, knowing in your heart that you did what you wanted to do, lived the life you wanted to live. Because if there’s anything more sad than death, it’s to die with regrets. That is a level of suffering unparalleled to any in the human experience.
So, please. Death. Yes. Scary? Yes. Awful? Yes. Painful? In all likelihood. But make the final moment when you close your eyes better for yourself. Unleash your soul in a spurt of golden wonder while you live, so that it can simmer down into gentle ashes when you die, not rage impotently like a fire being put out before its time, and perhaps be reborn in a trilling phoenix-bird of magic another lifetime. You know. If you believe in that sort of thing. It’s romantic all the same, though.