The Value of Reflecting on Death
Busy Bees and Tasks
There I was flitting from flower to flower like a busy bee- collapsing time frames- shifting paradigms- taking up slack- and none of it really mattered.
Let me explain what I mean. Certainly, I had the satisfactory feeling of exhaustion each day, if not physically at least mentally, of “doing” many things. I could gaze with pride at the row of check marks on my to-do list. A sigh of satisfaction as I sipped a cool, hard-earned drink. But as I looked at it, I began to ask myself does any of this matter? If tomorrow I stopped doing these things would anyone notice or protest? Maybe I was doing all this just for me- selfish satisfaction and pride. Then I asked myself how much of this will matter to my friends, family, colleagues, and students when I am dead? Will anyone boast of me that "You know every day he answered all his emails.” Would that be my epitaph? What would that matter? Finally, I asked my self how much of this will matter in eternity? The truth was precious little of it really even mattered now. Aside from bloodshot eyes, no friends, an irritated wife, and ulcers, what am I really accomplishing? Am I the proverbial “nowhere man making all his no-where plans for no-body,” as sung by the Beatles? So, you see I was in an existential crisis. In my life, I had moved from a do- nothing, no-good to a do everything and try to feel good. But at the end of it all, I would become worm food and dust and my completed lists would rot with me.
Fear of Death
I should pause here and mention the key to all this. Death. This is a very important fact. Death. In our culture (that is Western Civilization) we avoid the topic like we avoid the event itself. In fact, we often will not say “died.” When someone dies we don’t say “He died.” We whisper in soft tones “Well, he ‘passed away’…he is no longer with us…he is in a better place (whether that be the case or not).” We are not only afraid of death but we seem to have this sort of superstition that merely mentioning the word might bring us closer to the curse.
I insist that it is vitally important that we not only speak of death and think of death in the abstract but also in the personal. I recall the line from the movie Fight Club. “You gotta’ know, not think, know- one day you are going to die." While this particular work of art took a nihilist approach to life, I do not believe acceptance of the reality must by default lead to selfish destruction. I think it can be profound and life-changing for the good of self and those around us.
I must also note that a vigorous religious belief is not enough to bring solace or cause one to accept the reality of death and the absence of meaning. It seems to me that even Christians (and I use the term in the broadest sense) do as much to avoid the topic of death like the heathen. If you do not believe me visit a few funerals and listen to what is said, even by the clergy. Rarely, if ever, will anyone say in a matter of fact tone “Bob died and this is the future of us all." Secondly, it seems Christians, those of other religions and the none-religious alike, fill their lives with distractions and tasks that have no real meaning. This includes hours of mind-numbing and dumbing entertainment. Many will pay hundreds of dollars to attend a game with a ball of a particular shape of their own choosing and yet would never consider actually throwing, catching or kicking a ball themselves.
The Sound of Silence
This is not to mention the desperate fear and avoidance we have of silence. We must have a distraction or at least noise. Get into an elevator, we hear some music-ized version of a former pop or even heavy metal song. Without this noise that passes for music, the silences would be deafening and more than we could bear. How many housewives clean and cook with the TV, radio or gadget playing the background. When is the last time you went into a restaurant or café and actually heard nothing? It seems there is always a noise even just above the unconscious level, a soft noise. And how incredibly wise it was to put a radio in our car so that on those commutes to and from wherever, we do not have to think. We can be blissfully carried away by the latest dribble of noise, the greatest tragedy of the moment, the stupid whining of the flavor-of-the-week star, or even the darkest conspiracies. Most all of this has no real bearing on our daily reality but it does prevent us from dealing with thoughts, or heaven forbid, the other people in the car.
Perhaps this is all part of the halcyon to stop us from having a moment of clarity. If we were silent with our own thoughts we might awaken to the fact that life is slipping away like the blood from a wounded deer. And we are fading with it. Perhaps once we realized this we would then see that most of what we are doing is really meaningless. Hours scrolling on social media or binge watching our favorite TV series is not really so different than binge drinking our favorite alcoholic beverage. Both serve the purpose of silencing the screaming voices in our heads and passing, if not stealing, the precious hours of our lives.
Facing this crisis, that is death and meaning, I considered my options. Repent and return to the cult of Bob Dobs and beg to be let back into the fold of the slackers. Or I could become disgruntled at the meaninglessness of it all -bitter, hateful because I work so hard and “you people don’t appreciate me”—and the fact that I don’t get ahead is because the system is rigged and the man is keeping me down- as so many men fall into.
Perhaps this was the mid-life existential crisis that I read so much about. Maybe I should get a Ferrari and a young blonde mistress like they do in the movies. Only I could not afford a Ferrari and I did not have enough cash to compensate for my uncomeliness for the mistress either. Plus, my wife would be really mad and I don’t want to deal with that. It seemed the only thing left for me was the monastery. Like a quasi-Quasimodo, I could surely run through the giant, wooden double doors of the nearest religious order and scream “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”
I would be issued a gown, maybe have to shave my head and then I would be free of those decisions and the pressure to look nice for others. I could spend my days, contemplating how many angels could ride on a mote of dust, scrubbing floors, or beekeeping. Who knows, maybe this monastery would be Trappists- making mead or fine liquors- but of course never having the pleasure to sample them. Doing nothing all day in a monastery would only be a sophisticated form of laziness. This seemed worse than defeat. It looked like surrender. I am not ready to give up yet.
Perhaps I should exercise my “will to power?” Transcend the antiquated concepts of good and evil, and live however I pleased. Step on the sheeple as I climb the tower to my success. We hear this in so many pop songs. I think of that tune from the 60s or 70s: “Sha-la-la-la, live for today.” Elvis, Sinatra and Sid Vicious declared they had lived life “my way.” Let’s not forget that hit song from the 90s’- the band chanting over and over “We do what we want, We do what we want” – like good Gregorians. Oh, and if all of this is too much to remember, in the 21st century we reduced the philosophy it to a nice text-able troupe- YOLO (“you only live once”). Pure Nietzscheism, whether we are conscious of it or not.
Unfortunately, this has not worked out so well even for the uber-men and atheists like Nietzsche. Imagine the very one who claimed that “God is dead and we have killed him” spends the later part of his life in a sanitorium. His sister selling tickets to people so they can witness the German superman waste away, his mind rotting, as he spends days scrolling with the pen that he is Jesus over and over. Pitiful. So much for supermen.
And even those prophets of Pop are of no help. The music video shows them with jewels, girls, cars, houses-living the American adolescent dream. And yet their lives are plagued with divorce, alcoholism, drug addictions and suicide. Hemmingway, Elvis, Kurt Cobain, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain-the list could fill a page. They reached the top only to find there was nothing there. It was all vanity and rather than being good prophets and coming down from the mountain to reveal the rouse, they selfishly checked out of the party that could no longer provide them with fun or meaning. They quit.
We eat until our bellies are full. Drink until we are near drowning. And we do many other things, which are not proper to mention in public. And we are not satisfied. What do we do? Do we search for truth and meaning, either inside or outside ourselves? No. We embrace the idiot-culture and lobotomize ourselves, if only for a few hours every day. Sleep - eat - work - repeat. Lives of “quiet desperation.” Deep down inside we know that this is not right but we feel powerless. We just add more distractions until our distractions become our addictions until finally, we cannot think. It is not the ringing of a bell but the blipping, burping, tinging, dinging of our gadgets that now causes us to mindlessly salivate. It is not that we actually expect to find satisfaction in the latest meme, video, tweet, twit or lunch pic. But it is the never-ending, always promising but never delivering fear that we might miss something. I say it never satisfies because if it did we would put the stupid thing down and feel sated but we don’t. We scroll and scroll into infinity and beyond on the hopeless promise that we will see or read or hear something, anything, that will fill us. But it never does. And life keeps slipping away…