One reason that people don’t think about death is that it is fairly scary and uncomfortable to contemplate. We would often prefer to believe that we will continue on and on as ourselves forever and ever amen. The finality of death confronts us with a number of unsettling uncertainties. I would not necessarily recommend bringing up the inevitability of mortal expiration at Sunday brunch, for example, or while giving a toast at a wedding reception. Some people might consider that “not so cool” or even “kind of damn freaky, if you ask me.” It can be disconcerting to our well-established sense of self. So, we avoid thinking about it much and instead choose to watch another episode of Parks and Recreation. Fine, fine.
But there’s another reason, less intuitive reason that we don’t think much about death: It’s really, really hard to believe that it actually happens. Oh sure, we can reasonably understand that this has happened to everyone who has ever lived. Sure, we read about it all the time in the paper, even see pictures of it on the TV. Maybe it’s even happened to someone we’ve known. Logically, it’s a no-brainer. We aren’t stupid. It’s totally obvious. But… as practical reality?
As a practical reality, it’s nigh on impossible to believe that everyone is alive in the first place! I just came off Lexington Avenue at rush hour and the sidewalks are CRUSHED with thousands and thousands of humans as far as the eye can see in every direction! It would take an act of almost supernatural empathy to believe, to really believe, that each of those bodies contained the same amount of thought, intention, trouble, memory and connection as is contained in our own body. Logically, we can think it, but to experience that as reality is an insanely difficult project.
And to think that all of those multitudes will one day be dead? Your bartender, your teacher, your rabbi, your barista, everyone in the elevator with you, every person driving every car, all of the kids on the playground, every police officer, every person in every restaurant, everyone on TV or in a movie, every single name in your cell phone, all the people you ever went to school with or worked with, every person you ever seen with your own eyes or in a photograph? All of them are going to be dead? Forget about it. Your mind is a splendid, elegant and complex apparatus but there are certain things that defy comprehension.
It’s even harder to believe that you, yourself, are going to die. Yeah, yeah, you can think it. You can even consider the possibility of it. But to know the actuality of it, to completely realize it, is a spectacularly daunting undertaking.
Maybe you know the term “epicurean.” Yes? Do you know about the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE)? Well, that dude got a bit of a bad rap with the adjective based on his name. Generally, if you say that someone is epicurean, it means that they’re only interested in good food, good drink, and good sex; the skin-deep pleasures of the temporary flesh. Pardon my French but most people who ONLY pursue these things are assholes. Epicurus and his disciples were not assholes.
His school was called the Garden, because him and his students met in his (reportedly) very lovely garden. Their philosophy was this: you know that you’re going to die but you don’t know what it MEANS to die. You only know what it’s like to be alive so you should try to enjoy that as much as you can. Pleasure is good and pain is bad.
This is not advocating for reckless hedonism, in fact, often the opposite. After all, food is delicious, drinking can be fun, sex feels real good but any of those things sought greedily and in excess can lead to extreme displeasure (which is bad). They actually advised a very simple life in which one tries to find and experience the simple pleasures as deeply as possible. I am reminded of my good Baptist dad Steve, sitting out in the sunshine of our back patio, reading a particularly fine book and just… enjoying life… satisfied… content. Epicurus would have given dad a thumbs up for an afternoon well spent on Earth.
But an important part of appreciating those simple joys, according to Epicurus, was an intense and total realization and acceptance of death. Epicurus would have his students meditate for hours and hours on the plain and simple fact that they would not live forever. They were definitely going to die. For reals. Death is not to be feared but it is a certainty that it is going to happen.
So I’ll try to meditate on this and write it out in words.
My name is Nathan Merrill Langston and I was born in 1981 and I am going to die. Maybe it will happen tomorrow, unexpectedly or maybe it will happen in 50 years when my old body simply gives out of natural exhaustion. It doesn’t really matter. It will happen. There will come a time when my heart no longer pumps blood throughout my circulatory system. My lungs will no longer draw breath. The fingers tapping each of these letters will never move again, never touch a violin string again, never run themselves through my wife’s hair again.
My heels will never click, my mouth never sing, my hands never clap. This body will never again cripple with laughter or tears. I will never have an orgasm again or taste chocolate ice cream again or sample a particularly fine whiskey on a Friday evening after the good work of the day is done. This body will never dance again, will never listen to music again.
No more beaches, snow days, kisses, words, jokes, trees, movies, football games, Christmases, coffee, blankets, fires, touches, sights, smells, sounds, tastes, names, full moons, sunrises, bird chirps, dogs, cats, colors, shapes, songs, paintings, mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, sister, brother, no more friends, no more swimming, no more front yards or back yards or barbecues in back yards, no more shows, no more new shoes, no more blog entries, no more poems, no more hand shakes or high fives, parties, trips, picnics, books, water, dreams, lightning and thunder, letters, love notes, flowers, sparklers, photo albums, neon sidewalks, sunsets, hills, mountains, valleys, endless plains, stars… no more stars.
I will weep! Weep my eyes out!
My heart will stop inside my chest and my limbs won’t move and my eyes wont see and my ears wont hear. I will never take another step. My mouth will become dry as will the surface of my un-dilating pupils. My cells will stop replicating and slowly, so slowly, my body will begin to break down. Perhaps they will put these bones, fully clothed, into a pretty box in the ground or perhaps they will burn me up and my fair skin and hair will go up as smoke through a chimney stack into the sky.
This is not to be feared! This is not ugly to think about! This is natural! This is every bit as natural as being born! It has happened to every single person and it will happen to every single person! Weep! Weep your eyes out and scream your guts out like you did when you were born! But then…
Relax. Try to stop holding on so hard to all of it. Go to the beach and have a chocolate ice cream cone. It feels so good to go swimming! Go play an instrument or stroke your loved one’s hair. Call your mother or your friends. Make a joke. Give thanks! Drink a cup of coffee. Eat an orange. Have a glass of cool water. Go look at a great painting or listen to your favorite song. Hell, try a cartwheel. Wake up at sunrise with the first birds and gather flowers. Plan a barbecue or a picnic. Invite everyone over. Sit in the soft grass on the hill as the sun sets and give thanks beneath the stars.