I’ve been thinking of dying.
Not that I want to, not that there are any terminal conditions that I know of (except for life itself) – but time passes, age advances, and awareness of our mortality is one of those things that make us human, after all.
The desire to have children, to leave ideas or works of art, gain scientific insights or spiritual certainty, perhaps even the drive to do terrible things, but also the mere pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain… it is all related to this simple fact of life: it ends.
Rich or poor, destitute or desperate, popping vitamins or vital and un-preoccupied… ultimately, we all have a certain amount of time in our life, and as the saying goes, it’s not the time in a life that matters so much as the life we put in our time. Better conditions can make for more comfort, desolation probably does not make for a long, or good, life, but even so, no one can buy any more minute than the time they will eventually have had.
Short of pithy quotes, what do we ever want to hear of it anymore, though? We could, perhaps, not even function if we were overly aware of the danger we are constantly in. Walk out the door, and a car might hit you. A stranger may not be harmless but on a rampage.
Then again, most fatal accidents happen at home, and not moving anymore because it could be dangerous is sure to be dangerous. More people are now killing themselves slowly, with bad eating and living habits, than ever committed suicide. Or they live long anyways, maybe even saying that they are enjoying life to the fullest.
In fact, we only function in the face of death by avoiding the very thought. Most of the time, we simply aren’t aware of it. We have no reason to think of it, and so we don’t. We live in a now – or at least, we might wish we did live in the now, torn in ever more directions at once as we are by the onslaught of all the technology of entertainment and communication we surround ourselves with ever more.
Made aware of mortality, even if subconsciously, we instinctively retreat to what we think we know, into the worldview we hold as true – even if change is necessary and would be better.
Therein lies the great problem with all those pithy lessons of life and its end.
We shy back from thinking about our end – and when we are reminded, we tend to fall all the deeper into the ways we are already settled into.
We would do well to live as earnestly as if we were to die at any moment – but at the same time, to live truly well, we cannot live only for the moment, but we must also plan and learn as if we lived forever.
In thinking about death, about the surprise it may present in suddenly catching up with us, we tend to forget the other surprise life may have in store for us: it may go on for longer than we thought, for longer than immediate pleasure is able to hold an interest, than a life that lacks passion and purpose is really lived.
Look around yourself – and look in the mirror – and you may find many faces that make you wonder whether they are truly alive, really experiencing what they are doing right now, let alone finding passions and purposes with which to make life better, more interesting, more than just the mere fact of existing, now and into the future – however long that should be for them.
It does not even have to be earth-shattering impact that provides passion and purpose (or is their result). It can just be one of the many ordinary lives thanks to which life goes on, though hopefully better than it would have been without them.
“[T]he growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
― George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life
For this better (of self and the world), it must be more than just individual, egoistical, enjoyment that you live, though – life must have passion and purpose that can drive it to better. It is the same passion and purpose that can drive a life for longer.
It is all, of course, more usually contradictory than it is so synergistic. And very much so.
This, however, is just what life is:
Beautiful and appalling.
Fascinating and ordinary.
Full of surprises and all the same.
The challenge is not to face death and overcome it, not to find the ultimate truth, sense, meaning, not the utter enjoyment, nor the ultimate denial.
The challenge is to face life as it is, in all its complexity, with all its problems – and to realize that they are not problems without which life would be just dandy. They are life itself.
“The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.” – Theodore Rubin
It’s crazy, and it’s the most crazy how much we live our lives without concern for how to live them better, more realistically. Without really, deeply living – which means doing, not just dreaming. Perhaps, given how often we don’t really know our dreams, our better, the challenge of facing life is the challenge, also, not of living dreams, but of dreaming by doing.
So, with a new year about to start, don’t make resolutions you won’t keep, certainly don’t go on in ever the same tracks you’ll regret, but try out new things, go out and explore your surroundings, stay in and explore the world in learning something new.
Just don’t remain passive. Dream by doing. Get active.