“I am not afraid of death,
I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
I’ve been thinking about death recently. Not in any maudlin way. Many people seem to feel that any discussion of death is necessarily maudlin – I don’t agree. I think that, as death is the only undeniable universal factor in any human existence after birth (even taxes aren’t universal) it just makes sense to consider it, at least.
Anyway, I’ll begin with a story.
This is basically true. I overheard it between a relative and a family friend when I was pretty young, and as a result I’m only certain of the bare details. In fact, only the very last bit stands out strongly in my memory – the rest is speculation; not lies, but not necessarily true, either. The last lines, though, really happened, as far as I know.
Jane had an aunt, whom she loved very much. Jane’s husband had died years ago, and their son had died years before that, in an accident. This is how unfair life can be.
Jane’s aunt had been ill, and she finally got a call one day that her aunt was dying – in fact, that though there was little pain, she had only a few hours left. Jane wanted to see her aunt before she died; needed to. She set off.
These were the days before sat nav. She was upset, and her navigation skills weren’t at their best. Jane got lost. She wove along a warren of back roads and unfamiliar lanes, and the day wore on.
Finally, she got back on track – the roads became familiar again, and she sped on. Then she hit traffic. The road was blocked with knot after knot of cars, lorries, slow-moving tractors. The day wore on.
Finally the traffic cleared. Jane went on, close to panic now. Evening was approaching. The days before mobile phone too – she couldn’t know if she were too late or not. I don’t see Jane as being the sort of person who would break the speed limit, but I imagine she pushed it as far as she dared in the gathering dark.
She arrived at her aunt’s house. Out of the car, in the front door and up the stairs. She opened the door to her aunt’s room. There was a brief impression of closed curtains, a group of people, a nurse – the woman in the bed. Her aunt, of course – who looked up, smiled broadly, said:
“Oh – hello, Jane.”
Burn your TV
One day, you’re going to die. You, me, everyone out there waking up, walking to the shops, cleaning the car, gazing that cloud, doing anything, ever. This isn’t the worst of it.
For a lucky few, they’ll be hit by the bus they didn’t see coming, or be carried off in a moment by a stroke, or by a heart attack, or the accident of an instant. The luckier still will die in their sleep. ‘They never saw it coming’, we say – and this is meant as a comfort. They weren’t there when it happened.
For the rest of us (and this is the worst of it) there’ll come a point where we’ll know that we’re going to die soon. You get old. Your bones creak, your knees pop when you stand. You slow up. A few days, a few hours, moments. Tomorrow. Today. Presently. And we’ll have a little time to look back and assess what we have done with our lives.
Burn your television.
You get one go round the block. One. No replay, no repeats, no extensions; just one merry loop round and that’s it. You’ve been given, I’ve been given, a portion of eternity; an infinitesimally slim slice, it’s true; a nanosecond in the grand scheme, no denying it. But if you’re reading this the chances are you’re already amongst the more privileged, fortunate members of your species. It’s your nanosecond, yours to do with as you will. Out of all eternity, this part is yours, and it’s all you get. One of the most insidious effects of religion (though I don’t think the religious impulse is of itself insidious) is to make people waste their lives in anticipation of an afterlife. No. One go. That’s it. I do have a set of beliefs about the universe – but I wouldn’t characterise them as religious, and the afterlife certainly isn’t amongst them. Even if I’m wrong in the assumption, then I’ll have lost nothing. (I’m reminded of Dresden Codak: “Your staunch atheism has awarded you a place in secular heaven, an afterlife reserved exclusively for those who don’t believe in it.”)
Nietzsche put forward the concept of the eternal return:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more” … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”
On one level this serves as a measure of the usefulness of our actions: if the idea of being trapped in this moment is intolerable, then do something else. But then of course, laundry isn’t fun, but you’ll need clean underpants tomorrow. So see it as this, maybe: if the ultimate aims and aspirations you have in this moment aren’t the ones that you would be happy to dedicate your life to for the rest of your existence – if the shitty little things you’re doing in this moment aren’t ultimately in the service of what you think is important, and necessary, and good – then change what you do. Working a crappy nine to five? That’s fine – so long as it’s paying the way for the rest of the time that is yours, that you spend in pursuit of your aims, whatever they are. But if you’re working – slaving - your job – of whatever kind or standing – just so that you can afford bullshit that won’t enrich your existence, or brighten the assessment of your time in its own final stages then it is wasted effort, and makes a futile tragedy of the slim slice of everything that is you.