Almost everyone I talk to says they don’t fear death. I don’t fully understand how this is possible. We, collectively, as a species, exhibit a kind of existential dread, doing things like slathering on creams, getting plastic surgery and going to church to fool ourselves that an absolute end isn’t coming for us. But everyone, on a personal level, says they’re not afraid. Is it denial? A lack of ability to understand the finality of it? It could be inner peace, but I’m not so sure I’m buying that.
I thought a lot about this last week. A friend of my daughter’s, a high school student in my town, was rendered an orphan when his mother was killed in a car accident. His father had died when he was small, and he and his mother had emigrated to the U.S. not too long ago, all alone, no family. So here he is, sixteen and with no people of his own. The overwhelming sadness of that affected me all last week. What is a parentless child to do? What will his holidays look like, his special occasions for the rest of his life? As a mother, I could barely stand the thought.
On Sunday, I found myself incredibly productive, making several breakthroughs on a work in progress. A few days later, a friend wrote me to tell me she was stuck with her writing, and what did I recommend? I thought back to my streak of productivity, and tried to figure out what might have caused it. That’s when I realized it: the thought of mortality. The reminder that we all die, some of us sooner than others, some of us unexpectedly, had made me focus on what matters and what I want to leave behind.
I hate things I can’t change. Death certainly ranks high up there. The thought of using it as fuel to do what matters is at least a consolation. We squander so much time to the illusion that our time is infinite. If you think of it, procrastination is an act of great hope, this thought that we’ll be here tomorrow to do this thing. For many tomorrows we will, and for one we won’t, and we lack the capacity to foresee which is which. So is it prudent to walk around acting like time is limitless?
I’m not talking about walking around all bummed out. On the contrary. If it’s all made up, and the clock is running down, we are actually entirely unbound. No staying with the mate with whom we’re just going through the motions. No putting off writing that novel because maybe tomorrow you’ll be a better writer. No postponing the trip to Paris because it’s a frivolous expense. Time is running out for all of us, even if for some of us that means there are still seventy years left. Seventy or seven, it’s a finite number, and it’s unknown to us.
So… time to get cracking doing the things that feel wildly satisfying. Death is a mystery, opaque and scary, and the best we can do is meet it knowing we did all we could in life.