So we are driving back from a fun-and-fire-filled day yesterday afternoon. Kelly and I, that is. It’s long drive back, with at least five hours of fields, mountains, small towns, more fields, more mountains and so on. Depending on your company, these trips generally tend to go one of two ways. Either the two of you don’t really engage and will spend much of the trip listening to music of some variety (depending on the company, this notion of variety may stretch quite far) or you end up in the sorts of long and meandering conversations that such trips can often bring about. This was the latter (and my preference by far). I have come to relish those wandering exchanges and am thankful for the friends with whom I can have them. The ones where you talk about this big issues in life, teasing out ideas and perspectives on how you presently answer them and try to follow that forever-fascinating rabbithole together. Which is how this tale begins.
Somewhere in the course of the conversation, I was musing about death. Not in the morbid, depressing sort of way, but more because of a book I have been reading of late which has had me chewing over some ideas for a few weeks at least. ideas which have yet to really settle into a concrete idea of what they require me to do or change in order to fit them into my world view. The book in question is The Tibetan book of living and dying, written by a Buddhist monk who has been educated in both eastern and western ideas over his years. Now, I don’t want to get into a debate about the merits of one spiritual point of view over another, as this usually leads nowhere rational and is actually wholly unrelated to the point of this post. Which was the following simple observation.
In the more developed West (and I don’t know if this is generically true for most developing countries, but certainly seems to be so in my immediate environment) we tend not to think about death very much. Unless someone close to us has passed on recently, we find the topic morbid, depressing and generally to be avoided in polite company. Much like the religious comparison debate I sidestepped in the previous paragraph (did you see what I did there? Did ya?).
I will not be here forever, but while I am here, my time is mine. And I shall spend it to the fullest.
Unfortunately, the result of this refusal to face up and take a good look at death – our own in particular – is that we tend, by and large, to live our lives as though we might never die. We don’t consider death seriously and so we don’t let the finiteness of it inform our ways of living as much as we perhaps should. It was the question raised by the author of the book originally in the form of a minor thought experiment to ask whether, if we really acknowledged and internalised the fact that we will not be here without end and that we will die in time, would we live our lives differently? It’s been bugging me. And so in that car trip, I shared the question, semi-rhetorically.
It was sharp to notice how, when I asked, it was as though the record of our conversation just skipped and, after a brief silence, things moved onto different topics. I don’t know if she avoided it intentionally, had no answer, or just didn’t care, but it made the buggingness of the question just that little more bugging.
I also avoid the question. Or did. Nowadays it is increasingly on my mind that I had forgotten that I am a finite little stopwatch in the universe. When I go, there will be nothing left. Of the complex internal individual I am and the things that matter most to me, I will have been my only memory. That could be a depressing thought. Or, in a way, it can be profoundly liberating. When you begin to accept the idea, as Chuck Palahniuk so eloquently put it, that you are not in fact a beautiful little special and unique snowflake of unique specialness, you gain a certain freedom. You gain the courage that comes from being in the space in your head that lets you stand in front of the inevitable storm defiantly and declare that while I will not be here forever, my time is mine. And I shall spend it to the fullest. Seeing, learning, being and trying out. All of the crazy dreams of the things that you ever wanted to be and do. Think of them now. No, really. Stop. Imagine the most challenging, meaningful and grandest adventures you ever wanted to have, from your childhood to now.
Now realise that you may never, ever have another chance to do them when this life has passed.
And that, my friends, is the finely-ground point of this thinking. How, in the face of such an overwhelmingly obvious truth, can you not feel an energy to want to do the big things, the things that matter most?
The more I look, the more I can see that some people don’t ignore this question. They face up to it and make it a part of the people they choose to be. This guy lives a life specifically and around the primary mission of doing what will make the most of how he wanted to live, not how he had to. Solbeam, whose blog I may one day end up reading from end to end, stepped off the edge of the world to be the person she felt she needed to be.
Imagine the most challenging, meaningful and grandest adventures you ever wanted to have, from your childhood to now. Now realise that you will never, ever have another chance to do them when this life has passed.
Those are answers to this thinking. Not a 9 to 5 day job in a corporation, advancing gradually up the ladder of peer respect, upskilling and growing the nest egg for your retirement in order to wait out the inevitable in comfort. Those are not – and I will take whatever criticism you want to throw at me – lives lived. They are lives saved and protected, like the car you don’t want to scratch. And for what?
The realisation that your time is finite and that it is here to be made the most of is one of the most obvious and yet most life-affecting realisations that I think you may ever have. So put a foot outside and confront it. Let it inform where you direct your energies and how you plan your life. There is a satisfaction to it, but more importantly, it meant that you were, for a time, to yourself, somebody.