Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Journey of One: Mortality

[ This is part three of an ongoing series I call "Journey of One," which is meant to contain articles about me, my story, my journey, and the lessons learned from the life experiences. Here is part one: Journey of One: Brotherhood, and part two: Journey of One: Purpose. ]

Journey of One: Mortality

The subject which hits closest to home for me – and I am certainly not unusual in this regard – resounds in the old gospel song, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" Mortality and death are not easy topics, not only because of our instinctive desire to survive, but also – maybe more so – because death forces us to say goodbye to the ones we love. I think back to the words of my dead brother: words which remind me that life, it seems, is not without a sense of irony, albeit bitter and cruel. Upon turning 30 years old (Steve and I were the same age, separated by only four months), Steve lamented getting older because, the older one gets, the longer the list of people to whom we must say goodbye gets. Steve had lost a friend of his: a fellow wrestling buddy with whom he had developed something of a bond. Cancer claimed Steve a couple years later. Now Steve's sentiments are my own.

"Where, O death, is your sting?" Thoughts of an afterlife – a happy afterlife in particular – is exceptionally attractive. So satisfying is the belief that the ultimate unavoidable end to us all is merely a segue to something greater, an ineffable existence in which we are not only survivors, but victors enjoying the eternal spoils of triumph, not merely cheating death, but conquering it, not merely resisting the poison, but defanging the snake. Such belief becomes even more gratifying during times of loss. I lost my dad in 2006, my brother in 2008, and my grandfather in 2010. How I long for Death to be robbed of its sting. How I desire that the circle be unbroken.

I don’t mind getting older. It’s a part of life, and to be quite honest I find the process fascinating. At 37 years old I’ve developed some silver in my hair. I know, we live in a society that despises aging and the old (that is, if you believe the media and pop culture, which tell me that I need to cover up that grey hair so I can be successful in life), but as I head toward 40 I am actually grateful that I’m no longer in my 20s. I’m finally beginning to realize just how little I knew back then. I have lived just enough life that I have begun to appreciate the benefits of having real life experience. I didn’t have the understanding I have now when I was 18, or 21, or 25, or even 30. When I was 29, all I could think about was how I would turn 30 on my next birthday. When I turned 30, I realized that it wasn’t the end of the world. In fact, it wasn’t even unpleasant. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel any different. Sounds dumb, but I genuinely worried about such things. I won’t be nearly so stressed on my 40th birthday because I had that life experience when I turned 30. I understand now what I didn’t understand then. I wonder what I will know when I’m 40 that I didn’t understand or appreciate or consider when I was 32, or 35, or even right now at 37.

Maybe those people who despise aging – and consequently the elderly – do so because people despise death. Most people ignore the fact that one day they will die, and – if I may offer a conjecture – perhaps that willful ignorance fosters the animosity toward aging and the old. Think about it: everyone is getting older. Everyone ages. Everyone will either die young or grow old. It’s unavoidable. Certainly, people use makeup and skin creams and plastic surgery and convertible sports cars and sexual partners half their age to help them ignore the fact that they are getting older, and that’s actually rather telling. We try our best to ignore our mortality. We try to separate ourselves from it. Some go so far as to develop hatred toward getting old, and subsequently toward those who have reached old age before us. When I see a younger person insult or belittle or make fun of an older person for no other reason than because that person is older, I can’t help but think that this younger person is insulting herself. I want to get right in that person's face and scream: "Look at that older person. That’s the Ghost of Christmas Future you’re looking at. That’s you, if you’re lucky to live that long."

Considering what I’ve been through in my life, and considering not only the terrible hand life has dealt me but also the many ridiculously bad decisions I’ve made in my life, I do consider myself lucky. I am fortunate to be alive, to have survived through so much without accepting defeat or giving up or putting a gun to my head. This is not an attempt at hyperbole. There was a time in my life in which I considered suicide a viable option for me. I wasn’t well. I was in a really bad place, and felt trapped. I didn’t understand how sick I was back then. Again, I am grateful for the life experience I have which allows me to see this. Depression is a real illness, and if it isn’t treated like a real illness, it will hurt you, and possibly even kill you like a real illness, because it is a real illness. I have lived through it. I confronted it on more than one occasion, and survived the encounter. I look at it now as one looks back at a thunderstorm one found himself in the middle of merely moments before.

I’m alive. I’m continuing to get older. I consider that a good thing. Yes, I’ve lost loved ones. Yes, the circle is broken. Yes, I’ve become a little sadder, a little more sober, a little more subdued with the passing of time. I’ve learned that, while wisdom and joy aren’t mutually exclusive, they rarely hold hands and get along well together. But there is a happiness to be found in life, and those of us who have even a small taste of it should celebrate, because not everyone is privy to such happiness. Ironically, we should grieve for exactly the same reason. Not ironically, both our happiness and our sadness should prompt us to live with compassion.

Through all this, I understand why religious belief persists. What do those of us who embrace cold, hard logic and reason have to offer that can compare? We have been raised on stories of everlasting life, conditioned to cling to the hope that we will be united with loved ones when we pass beyond the veil of death, and moreover be made perfect and complete after our mortal flesh reverts to dust. Pascal's Wager may be the quintessential false dilemma, but it succeeds most auspiciously as a reveille which kindles dread and even loathing of the "other option," be it either damnation or oblivion. Indeed, we are so eager to hedge our eternal bets that we convince ourselves that god can be fooled by our pretending to believe in order to receive that golden ticket.

... there is a happiness to be found in life, and those of us who have even a small taste of it should celebrate, because not everyone is privy to such happiness. Ironically, we should grieve for exactly the same reason.

I don't know what happens after we die. I have no reason to believe any part of our consciousness continues on after the brain dies, and so I leave it at that. If I die and find some part of me still conscious on some celestial or ethereal plane, so be it. If not, then I won't care, because there won't be an "I" to do the caring. One has to exist in order to care about existing. If I no longer exist, then I will have no needs, no cares, no worries, no struggles, no pain, no problems, no loss and no regrets. That's as much Nirvāna as anyone could ever ask for.

As I have grown older, I have grown to appreciate the life I have now, the life I know I have, without requiring it to last forever in order for me to consider it valuable. I am also just now old enough to understand existentially just how short life is. When I was 21 I thought I had forever to achieve my goals, and forever to actually figure out what my life's goals were supposed to be. Now I understand and appreciate just how quickly the sand passes through the hourglass. If we survive through all eternity, then we have an unlimited quantity of life, or being, or, to borrow a term most notably utilized by Martin Heidegger, Dasein. Unlimited. "Everlasting life," as the Bible says. Think about that for a moment. The ride never ends. There's always enough time. Procrastination becomes an obsolete word in the face of forever. We've been taught to cherish the infinite, but perhaps the finitude of this life is what makes it all the more precious. Each breath I draw is valuable to me precisely because I do not have an unlimited supply.


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