Life, as we know, can be tedious and brief. What else is life? We think it owes us happiness and that our job is to strive for that. But is happiness the same thing as finding meaning? And how does one find – or define – meaning?
This tedium and brevity is illustrated, but also upended, in the S-Town podcast, which has been quite popular and quite… human. The man who is the focal point of the podcast is complicated. Early on he talks about sundials and how all sundials have mottoes engraved on them. He mentioned “Tedious and brief” as one of them: “All sundial mottoes are sad like that.” And yes, sundial motto or clever tattoo, “tedious and brief” is what we experience, with temporary and memorable bright spots deposited throughout the otherwise tedious (and brief) journey.
…When I returned from being away for a few days, I looked out into the field and saw that hordes of birds had gathered in a huge swarm in a field near the road, not far from home. Upon closer inspection, one could see the twisted carcass of a picked-apart deer. It’s more common to see a fox in this roadside state of non-being. But here, the picked over remains of a deer, a feast for avian life, made me consider life – in general. And how inconsequential its endings. To end up dead in a field for ravenous birds to pick at.
A realization that someone from high school had died some time ago, someone I did not know well but remember in the mind’s eye – these bright memories that form the spine of all the silly stories of youth and even inform the way I came to identify myself (the eternal, calm counselor to heartsick friends). I’ve reached that age when people either start to die or unspool the threads of their tidy lives into tangled knots of midlife crises. And then it’s the stark contrast between the graveyard (metaphorical or not) and the musical chairs game of midlife.
“The interim is mine”
Never mind all the things we do in the interim before reaching death, fooling ourselves. (The word “interim” now always reminds me of a scene from Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors. Jason Patric’s character boasts about something he had done, “The bitch deserved it. She never understood me.” “Don’t you think you’re going to have to pay for all this in the end?” “If there ends up being a God, probably so. But until then, we’re on my time. The interim is mine.”)
In this interim that belongs to you, or to me, or to us, we can live for the little deaths, whether it’s the small, crushing disappointments that erupt under all the surfaces of our smooth-going, gliding-along lives, or the orgasms we covet (la petite mort, in the purely French sense), or all the bad habits we accumulate but brush off until they kill or damage us, which we instinctively know but still act on, and literature chronicles for us:
“An alcoholic, his blood no longer able to clot, who bled to death into his joints and under his skin. Every day, the bruises would spread. Before he became delirious, he looked up at me and said, ‘It’s not fair—I’ve been diluting my drinks with water.’” -from When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalinithi
“In such a state, the philosopher and writer Friedrich Nietzsche remarked, ‘One cannot get rid of anything, one cannot get over anything, one cannot repel anything—everything hurts. Men and things obtrude too closely; experiences strike one too deeply; memory becomes a festering wound.’” -from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Maté
I’ve thought about mortality a great deal (it’s human to do so, after all) from so many angles. I am not sure why it comes to mind so often right now – maybe just as a counterbalance to pettiness. Maybe because there is frailty everywhere. Maybe because it seems meaningless to end up dead in a field (even as a deer), which makes me, as a person, think that even though I won’t leave an indelible mark on the world when I die, I like the idea of at least affecting or influencing those closest to me, which is not really possible if there is no one close to you during this fleeting, brief “interim” that belongs to me, to you, to us, to those who exist in this particular window.
“If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?“
“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” -from When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalinithi
Remembering the man, losing the details
I have written before about the passing of detail with the passing of people – how we don’t know what we will want to know from the people who have died before us. We don’t even preserve their histories and details when they live to a ripe, old age – so how can we hope to gather all the detail from people who die at 30, for example? My mom lost her brother last year, and she has come to realize that not only is she the last one left from her immediate family, her brother was the keeper of all the details. She had counted on being able to ask him about things from their childhood, or about things they had experienced ten years ago. When he died, she lost not just him but that last link to the shared history, to the details. And death looms over the life – and its details – that passed.
“What we remember lacks the hard edge of fact. To help us along we create little fictions, highly subtle and individual scenarios which clarify and shape our experience. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings. This is obvious to me. If it weren’t for these structures, art would be too personal for the artist to create, much less for the audience to grasp. Even film, the most literal of all the arts, is edited.” -from The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosiński
Tedious and brief – and you are not to blame
“Death, of course, is not a failure. Death is normal. Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things.” -from Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
Yes, death is inevitable. It’s coming for all of us, some sooner than others. Life is “tedious and brief” – and does not care for you. But at some point, it is no longer seen as a game of chance or a hand you are dealt. It is no longer abstract. And if you don’t live to a ripe, old, senile age, somehow you are accused of moral failure. It’s your duty to try to stay alive as long as possible.
“Premature death, particularly if it’s due to terminal illness, is no longer seen as lucking out in the divine lottery, but as a personal failure, like a self-induced bankruptcy.” -from Karaoke Culture, Dubravka Ugrešić
And yet if you overstay your welcome in life, you are anticipating death, perhaps impatiently and angrily, while others either want to hasten your death or force you to keep living even when you don’t want to, falsely selling the idea of prolonging youth when in fact old age is all you can prolong at a certain point:
“The problem was her death: it simply wouldn’t come. If it had crawled in through the central heating system, she would have gladly given herself over to it. Death doesn’t smell. It is life that stinks. Life is shit!” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
“‘Why don’t you dream up a way of dispatching old people comfortably, instead of tormenting them by dragging out their old age?’ Pupa emerged from her slumber. ‘Forgive me, I don’t understand …’ ‘Crap! Prolonging old age indeed! It’s youth you want to prolong, not old age!’” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
“All primitive cultures knew how to manage old age. The rules were simple: when old people were no longer capable of contributing to the community, they were left to die or they were helped to move into the next world. Like that Japanese film in which a son stuffs his mother into a basket and carries her to the top of a mountain to die. Even elephants are cleverer than people. When their time comes, they move away from the herd, go to their graveyard, lie down on the pile of elephant bones and wait to be transformed into bones themselves. While today hypocrites, appalled by the primitive nature of former customs, terrorise their old people without the slightest pang of conscience. They are not capable of killing them, or looking after them, or building proper institutions, or organising proper care for them. They leave them in dying rooms, in old people’s homes or, if they have connections, they prolong their stay in geriatric wards in hospitals in the hope that the old people will turn up their toes before anyone notices that their stay there was unnecessary. In Dalmatia people treat their donkeys more tenderly than their old people. When their donkeys get old, they take them off in boats to uninhabited islands and leave them there to die. Pupa had once set foot on one of those donkey graveyards.” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
Also in this interminable interim: “As we grow older, we weep less and less. It takes energy to weep. In old age neither the lungs, nor the heart, nor the tear ducts, nor the muscles have the strength for great misery. Age is a kind of natural sedative, perhaps because age itself is a misfortune.” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
Part of this indeterminate-in-length waiting room that is life – and it really is a waiting room, even if that makes it sound most mundane (but a lot of life is misery and the most mundane of dullness) – is the part where you are actively waiting to die. Perhaps the medical industry – kabuki that it can be – is trying to extend your life, but at whatever stage of the process you’re in, whatever age you’re at, it’s still kind of a ‘waiting around to die’ ride at the fair: ups, downs, twists, spins, loop-to-loops, and even some maneuvers that turn you right upside-down.
Yet, even with the knowledge of the expected end – that we and those around us will die – it is something we do not know how to handle or prepare for. I again use my mother as an example here – she lost both her parents, her sister-in-law and her three cats (each of which was over 16 years old) all within a short span of time. To say she was devastated by grief would be an understatement. It didn’t matter that her parents were in their 90s, that her sister-in-law finally didn’t suffer any longer or that, as many insensitive souls said, her cats were “just cats”, she was heartbroken, and the hits just kept coming.
It’s this aftermath that’s hardest to know what to do with. The people who remain: how should they move on? Should they? I mean, do you ever really move on? Are you the same person after you experience a major loss and the kind of grief it visits upon you? Of course it – death and grieving – is a part of life; do you come out the “other side” dramatically changed because, in fact, your world is changed so significantly (because of these absences/losses)? Or is grief the engine of being exactly the same person you were in a changed world (and you start to “let go” or “stop grieving” only once you start to change in facing the new reality)?
“Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.” -from Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter