I’m currently in the middle of Christopher Hitchen’s posthumously published book “Mortality“, and something clicked; I know why I’m scared to die.
I’ve always been unconvinced by Epicurus’ assertion that “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.” This explanation does not make the fact of death less frightening for me. I do worry about death before it comes, don’t we all? Epicurus seems to be arguing against fear of the very moment when you die. But none of us typically live in fear of the “moment” of our deaths. We fear the loss of our future selves, the possible fulfillment of our hopes and dreams left undone. So in place of his quote I’d more soberly state “You will fear your death until it comes, and the closer you get the more you’ll fear it, because you have hopes for the future.”
I’m a 31 year old man and I’ve been aware of my mortality, in a palpable, genuine way, for years. To reenforce this fact came the death of Hitch, who I read now in the form of his last book. Then came the sudden death of Rachel’s father. A personal, real, loss. The fact that these men were in their sixties and well into life does not give me comfort. As if death were 30 years off. I lost a childhood friend, only a year older than me at the time, and younger than me now, to an aneurism while she slept. A type of death that really terrifies me. And I know that one cannot live life fearing the random. But I cannot brush the fact of my mortality off; I seem incapable.
It hits me hardest in times when work is slow. For most cliché-ridden, red-blooded American men: work is life. This idea that if these men stop working they’ll die. That may seem silly, but for me it becomes frighteningly true when I’m not in a show. I may not be a construction worker, industrial painter, truck driver, or what-have-you, but I feel and know the loss of purpose that comes when I’m not in motion. I believe I may feel it even more so as an artist. Many people feel the need to be productive, to feel as though they are actively doing something. However, most of these people wouldn’t say that the acts they engage in (construction, business, etc.) are the passion of their lives. If they could make money building model planes, or home remodeling or even fishing, they would do so in a heart-beat. Many, when they are out of work, can retreat to these passions.
But when your work is your passion you are set in a strange position. In such a case, to work is to fully engage in what it means to be human. To be exactly where you should be, doing exactly what you should be doing. However, to not work is to be so utterly lost at sea that the very act of living seems empty at times. You have no hobbies to fall back on. When love and life meet, often you have no fall back. You’re just passing time.
Passing time. This is the idea that hit me. Pierced me. I don’t have time to pass. Soon, I too will be dead. And all I’ve done will be (if Im lucky) written in a biography. Which brings me back to the top. Reading the last book of a man I argued with vehemently, and cherished deeply, I see myself all too soon being simply the subject of history, and I’m petrified, terrified, that I won’t measure up to what I could have been.
Thus, I realized: I have no time. I feel like I’m only scraping for moments against the void. Sweet, delicious, searing, hurtful, deep, betraying, moments – all on borrowed time. During any moment of which the clock could stop.
This saddens me, naturally. It’s sobering (no, not literally, how banal) and it makes me hyper-aware. As Bertrand Russell said an atheist’s worldview must be built on the firm foundation of unyielding despair. We must scrape for our time and hold it dear. It was looking at the picture of Hitchens on the back of his book that I realized “I may come to even less, and in the end I too will be just a footnote, perhaps a dustjacket.”
Is it so crazy to then say that this is an exhortation to love to your fullest? To get off your ass? To do and love, all you can? It seems incongruent somehow doesn’t it? But the ever encroaching specter of death leads me to want more from life, even as as my own professional slowdown causes me such angst, for the very same reason; of lost time.
I know why I’m scared of death. For the same reason Hitch was. He had so much left to do. I have so much left to do.