Geez Louise. That’s one hell of a headline. Bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.
George Carlin did one of my favorite riffs about death when he talked about the sanctity of life. There is none, he argued, because everything that ever lived is dead, and everything alive today is going to die.
Where’s the sanctity in that, he asked? There is none. Not really. We’re selective about what we consider sacred. And those living have a strong motivation about their right to live, which is just one reason folks, who often have not sorted out how to make this life a particularly good one, keep arguing for either an extension or, like a pilot, a go-around.
There are none.
The church, understanding human nature, stopped teaching reincarnation because folks, again, with good reasoning, figured that if they screwed it up this time, they got another go. So, why keep telling people they can come back (even if they are coming back as a garden slug) when that only means that their current efforts would descend into depravity?
Just like now?
Well, that’s why we have fire and brimstone, so that if hope doesn’t work, terror might. That doesn’t seem to be working either.
Death, which is inevitable, no matter how many movies and stories and breathless articles appear about longevity, begins the moment of birth. What is so wonderful about that is expressed beautifully in this quote by Richard Dawkins:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred? (author bolded)
Living well is so much about perspective. I periodically read sour Medium pieces about how life sucks, and how gratitude is fulla you know what. Look. I get it, and I’ve been there. I lost a brother to suicide and the great love of my life to an airplane crash. Everything dies, and yet those of us still here still get to live.
Perhaps if we consider this version of how you came to be, you might appreciate yourself more. This is from the inimitable Bill Bryson, in the introduction to his bestseller A Short History of Nearly Everything:
Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.
To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.
Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually care about you-indeed, don’t even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.
The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting-fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that’s it for you.
Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn’t, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life is curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements-nothing you wouldn’t find in any ordinary drugstore-and that’s all you need. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the miracle of life.
This sweetly lighthearted approach to the extraordinary miracle that is you, living and breathing right now, is just one reason I read Bryson, who is himself one year older than I am at 70. We are both slowly returning to those mundane elements which make us, us, and being given new roles, to be determined.
His good humor has often buoyed me through godawful times when I really didn’t want to be here, either. With good reason. But I am. And so are you.
We lucky few.
That we even exist at all is such a happy accident, but by god we surely do complain about much of the time we are given. There are people and publications whose tone of complaint and bitterness have gone so sour on this platform that I now spend the first few minutes of my increasingly limited reading time blocking them. The shorter my time gets, the more invested I am in trying to make the best of it.
That doesn’t mean not care about the world. Not at all. If anything I care much more, which is why I am shutting down the negativity that threatens to snuff out the enthusiasm and intense gratitude I have for not just waking up, but being upright. Lotta folks aren’t, and many more never got the chance.
You and I did. To quote Lucy in the Scarlet Johansson movie with that title, speaking about life,
“look what we’ve done with it.”
Perhaps it takes aging enough, perhaps a great deal, to finally begin to truly appreciate having been born at all, and given what time we have, especially as it begins to shorten, to enjoy the world we inhabit. Sure, we’ve done a lousy job with a great deal of it. I wouldn’t argue that at all.
By the same token, as the world argues about The Slap, and countries bicker and argue about who owns whom, and people fight and kill and love and make more babies, there is still this thing called living that we are allowed, each in their own way, to do. Well, for about 650,000 hours or so, at least. Maybe. Not for my brother or my beloved. Maybe not for you. Or me.
Spring has exploded at my house (hence the cherry blossom photos), and in a few days my beloved friend Soni arrives. About a month from now I am off to Africa again. I am in training. I have no clue how many more badass trips I have in me. I have no clue how many more Saturdays I get to spend doing whatever I do on Saturdays. I have no clue how long Soni and Melissa and other friends near my age have either.
I do know that I am by god going to die. That is great news. For that means I will have lived.
As Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, Act IV,
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”
We were given a life.
What are you going to do with yours?
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