It’s uncomfortable. Death. Its steady approach sometimes breaches our thoughts and pulls us out of our blissful day-to-day ignorance of its existence. Yet, there is value in acknowledging and accepting the reality of death.
As a child, I opted out of going to my grandfather’s funeral out of fear. I was old enough to understand that other people felt the weight of the situation, but not so much so that I knew I’d eventually regret not going. I don’t think anybody forced the issue because my mother had just lost her father and my grandmother lost her husband. They didn’t have the energy to cajole a brat to this final goodbye.
As I’ve grown, I’ve become aware of my own mortality. I’ve been scarred by the sudden deaths of friends and family and I wasn’t prepared for their passing. Despite my hopes and prayers, the deaths still occurred, and I fear that this unpleasant trend will continue. I‘m reminded of all the king’s horses and men urgently trying to save Humpty Dumpty and realizing their struggle is futile. I suppose this happens every day around the world: we struggle against death.
But to really think about death ultimately leads to thoughts about life. What are we here for, if to ultimately die? We see that animals with shorter lifespans have higher reproduction rates, and animals with longer spans have fewer offspring but spend more energy caring for their children. Both of these strategies seem to work in a way to ensure that about the same number of offspring make it to the age of reproduction and the cycle begins again. So you could infer from this that the whole purpose of life is to carry on. But, if that’s so, why did we get so damn brainy to recognize our own impending death? Would life be better if we were born, had sex, and died never understanding what it is to die? Would this blissful life have less meaning or value?
I went to church as a kid, and I’m not sure I really understood the point of religion. I was told God was everywhere and all-knowing. I imagined all my private time being analyzed by these all-knowing eyes. It seemed like a bit of overreach to me. As I grew older, I tried to understand why there were so many different religions and if one of them was “correct”. I figured the number of followers a religion had made it more legitimate. However, all religions seem to judge followers based on their ability to have faith. And that faith did not rely, as far as I can tell, on evidence. I eventually lost faith in religion, and I really wish I could go back to those days when I imagined myself living an afterlife on a cloud watching MTV and eating pizza rolls.
Although they took me to church, my parents were never really religious. I just think taking their kids to church was the thing to do, and so I went. As an adult, I had a conversation with my dad, and, as it turns out, he put a lot of thought into religion and the meaning of life, too. He said, “You know, I’ve listened to many people and theories, and all I can think of is this: if life has a purpose, we must be here to do good”. That’s about the best I can come up with, too.
As I grew older, I had even more chances to think about death. I joined the military and trained as if death could be the outcome of an imperfect performance or just bad luck. I flew on airplanes and sometimes imagined the final moments of a crash or a missile taking us down. I sometimes imagined I was stepping to a plane whose mission was so dangerous that I might not come back; I wondered how I would feel. I’ve heard of Samurais, who went into battle having already counted their lives as lost. I think it made them fight with reckless abandon compared to their enemies who would conserve at least some of their energy to try and make it home afterward.
Somewhere else along the way I’ve heard that if you look at your life as your ultimate possession, then death will be your ultimate fear. Instead, if you consider humanity as a grand organism and yourself as a cell of this being, your actions and influence will live on eternally after you pass-like a pebble dropped in a pond. You can choose to be a cell that fights off infection or a cell that helps the organism see, breathe, or think. Or you could be a cancer cell who grows many other cancer cells that ultimately take down the whole. Maybe your legacy won’t be a statue or a paragraph in a history book, but an idea for a child who carries on to do good things.
Beyond that, sometimes musing on death helps you understand people. I knew two people who died and they had an intense dislike for each other. I figured if religion as I knew it was true, upon death, my two dead colleagues would be ordained with complete and ultimate knowledge. If they had that kind of knowledge -if they knew the meaning of life and the reasons for everybody’s failings: Would any bothersome personality trait mean anything? I’d imagine not. You would know the deep-seated reasons for those traits.
I imagine my two loved ones as balls of lights having a conversation: they would immediately understand each other’s perceived shortcomings and forgiveness would be instant and total. Could you imagine if you knew that your arrogant cousin is just looking for approval or your highly critical friend is just hoping for acceptance? It’s wired into our being that we need attention and acceptance and if we’re not exactly sure how to do it, sometimes we run askew and piss people off. If we understood everybody that way, we might treat each other more kindly.
At any rate, I’ll take a break from my musings on death and enjoy some of the valuable time I have left. Then maybe I’ll donate to a good cause and try to stop and smell the roses…before they die.