Montaigne advised us to think of death often. Socrates said that philosophy is training for death. But death is absent from my life. It happens to other people. It’s elsewhere.
When I think of death, I feel a vague unease. Sometimes the unease turns to concentrated dread. But it’s always momentary. I feel pain, sadness and confusion, and then it passes. And my life returns to me, my life of habit, my typical moods and stupidities. Jumbled trains of thoughts going nowhere.
I don’t think of death when I see it out in the world. Reading the news reminds me of death as a fact, as something external and unrelated. I read it as an objective event like so many others. GDP is up, the stock market is down, this bill was passed, that bill was struck down, and people died. Death is an operation, a function, an implacable machine. It’s impersonal.
There are accidents and attacks. There are car crashes, diseases and wars. Steel beams through the skull. Flesh shredding bullets. Microbes slipping through the skin and liquifying organs. Tar coated lungs, pickled livers and self destructive immune systems. There’s death by smoking, drinking, injecting, snorting, and fucking. Fun is fatal but so is sadness. Sitting kills and so does loneliness.
And then people die because nothing nothing else killed them.
Living too long kills us. We’re designed to shut down and rot. The best we can do is pass a part of ourselves down, in name or blood. Live a little longer through children, remembered acts and words.
I think of death when it’s not on the screen, on tv, in a book, or in a conversation. It’s there when I wake up at 3:30 in the morning for no reason. The house is quiet and I have nowhere to go and nothing to do. I’m too tired to focus but not tired enough to fall back asleep.
First I think of the death of everyone I know and love. And then I think of my own. A few moments of paralysis and then nothing. Maybe I’ll call my parents later in the day. But it will be a normal conversation and nothing will change.
A day beginning with the thought of death will be a day like any other. I think I should change, I should feel urgency. And for one dense moment I do; I want to change everything, I want to escape, to leave life without having to die. When the thought of death fades, so does the urgency. I can’t keep the thought in mind long enough.
It’s too distant, too difficult to picture and then incorporate. A secular, debased culture glorifies living for the moment and immersing yourself in the ephemeral. Don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t worry about the beyond. Don’t sacrifice your present for an uncertain future.
But life is more than a series of moments squeezed and strained for maximum intensity. Religion and philosophy are in disrepair; no wonder I don’t know how to train myself for death. I don’t know how to live in the ambit of mortality because there’s no teaching or training for it anymore.
You’re told to forget about it, push it away and do anything and everything but think of it. I hear people say we’re becoming less materialistic because we value experiences over possessions. We know we can’t take our things with us when we die, so we focus on something else.
All well and good. But we want experiences in the same way that we want things, as permanent, as enduring. There’s a desire for eternity that won’t go away. Just as we can’t take our things with us when we die, neither can we take our experiences. We can’t take ourselves with us when we die and that’s the problem. No amount of rich, deep, instagrammable experiences eases the anguish of losing everything without knowing why.
You can climb mountains, dance, laugh, fall in love, stay out until 4 in the morning, and every other bloated, cliched, life embracing and affirmation inducing thing you want. You can savor the memories of the times when you fully lived and held back nothing.
And it still won’t be enough to suppress the terror of death. Living your life with exhilaration and abandon won’t help you with dying, and the thought of dying won’t help you with living a better life.
People pretend to be okay with death because they don’t know how to think of it, or they can’t stand the thought of it. So they recall an ancient command and try to seize the day. The problem is deeper than how we spend our time seizing various things perpetually slipping away. The heart of the problem is being in time at all, being subject to its degradations, and no wise counsel from other mortals long gone will solve it.