What’s the last thing you remember? You might think that question requires a bit more specificity, but I’m asking it quite literally. What’s the last thing, right now? Is it reading this sentence? Clicking on a link that brought you here? Taking a sip of coffee before starting to read this post?
Ok, now what’s the last thing you remember? Is it contemplating the previous question, or reading the previous sentence? This sentence?
The point of this increasingly aggravating line of thought is to make clear that if you look closely enough, you’ll see that we don’t experience things in the present. Even in an immersive experience, with all of our attention narrowed to what seems like this moment, we’re intent on what just happened. There are experiences of being lost in the moment, but those ultimately translate into memories, not moments. You remember things that have happened, not that are happening. And we spend more time reliving the memories than we ever spend on the experience itself. A friendship that has lasted 20 or 30 years is significant and has depth because of all that history, little of which is actually happening in this moment. We may say that someone spends too much time “living in the past” or we might be guilty of it ourselves. Too much dwelling on what has gone before isn’t productive. But even if we aren’t stuck there, in a real, literal fashion we are always living in the past.
I’ve come to believe that the end of this process, the end of remembering and nostalgia, is what we fear most about death.
My own experience that led to this belief was something I’ve only had to go through once: general anesthesia. I was out for over 5 hours, but I only know that because I woke up. I had no sense of time, no dreaming, no anything. It was as if they had turned me off, and then back on again. I remember moving from the rolling bed to the operating table, and then everything went blank, and then I woke up. That was it. I realized that if it hadn’t gone well and I didn’t wake up, I’d never have known it. That’s not such a startling realization, but this was- not only would I not have woken up, I wouldn’t be in a position to even remember that last act of moving to the table.
Death, when it comes, is an eraser.
Last year, I was trying to help out a friend who has repeatedly struggled with suicidal thoughts. Like I imagine a lot of people in that situation to feel, he simply wanted what he was going through to be over with and couldn’t see why it was worth continuing to struggle.
I don’t have the disposition to approach such a challenge from a positive motivational angle, making a case for future joys and successes. Saying things always work out for the best is to ignore the existence of financial misfortune, terminal disease, flat tires, spilled coffee, tornadoes, heartbreak and psoriasis. It’s like saying that everyone at the Olympics is going to get a bronze. I also knew he was beyond, for various reasons, being concerned about how it would impact others. My only honest approach was to tell him that what he was considering wouldn’t help.
In order to experience relief from pain, one has to be conscious of the lack of it. You have to be able to look back and say “ah, finally that’s over.” Like when you really, really have to pee and then you finally get to a suitable location, it’s those first few moments of relief when all the tension drops away that serves as a counterpoint to the squirming agony and spontaneous dancing.
Or when getting out of a bad relationship, a move you would have made sooner had you not been so blinded or in denial or reluctant to change that you couldn’t see what the other side might look like. Then you do, and you look back behind you and can finally see the forest AND the trees, and thank you sweet baby Jesus, Vishnu, and Buddha that it’s over now. You rediscover good tequila, friends, how to smile, and lying in bed a little before dawn with the window open, listening to everything.
Death takes away all of this. All of your pain, yes. But also, all of your conception of the pain being over. That “ahhh” moment never comes. We have an extremely hard time seeing this. Writer Oliver Burkeman, in The Antidote, says “…what we call ‘the fear of death’ is really more of a horrified seizing up in the face of something utterly inconceivable.” We can’t think of an event beyond which we don’t imagine looking back to remember what it was like. Death is a different story. We suspect there may be no after, no rear-view mirror perspective. That’s where the fear comes from. Few people truly believe in an afterlife. This is self-evident from how most people live. Most of us, even if we’re religious, are not completely convinced that something is next. And I knew that my friend, not being religious in any conventional sense, was among them.
I can’t say whether it was my reminder that not only would his pain be over, but also his capacity to enjoy the lack of it, that stopped him that day. Perhaps it did play a part, if he stopped long enough to consider that death is the ultimate Fear Of Missing Out, where you don’t even get to find out what you missed.
What I didn’t yet understand and wasn’t able to communicate to him at the time, was a singular paradox; facing death and coming to terms with that fear was indistinguishable from overcoming his fear of living.
Mindfulness has become a pop psychology buzzword as of late, but the practice does have a significant history in Buddhist meditation. The benefit of it has been asserted again and again by mystics and philosophers across many cultures, and most recently by psychologists. Learning to narrow the focus of attention (not the same thing as shortening your attention span) amplifies your immersion in experience, reducing the distance between now and our conception of it. Nostalgia is the opposite of mindfulness. Taken beyond the amusing retro-hispter affinity for vintage accoutrements, it’s largely a waste not only of time but of experience. It increases our attachment, our clinging to some particular aspect or time of our lives. Not to mention seeing it manifest as a full-bore obsession with rewinding the world and entire cultures back to a different decade (Hi, Tea Party!) Author William Gibson said in a 2012 interview, “I’ve become convinced that nostalgia is a fundamentally unhealthy modality. When you see it, it’s usually attached to something else that’s really, seriously bad.”
While Gibson was speaking on a cultural scale, it’s no more healthy on a personal one. Being attached to was means we are missing out on now. Was is calcified, frozen, a fossil. Now has possibilities. It’s the fear of death that drives nostalgia and is ultimately at the bottom of our clinging to was.
Most of our activities are like this. Ernest Becker, a veteran who saw the worst horrors of WWII in Europe first hand, said in his Pulitzer-prize winning book The Denial of Death that humans engage in “immortality projects” so that we survive symbolically, beyond the body’s limitations. According to Becker, religions, starting businesses, charitable acts, and political movements are “…designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.” Two decades of subsequent psychological research into the validity of Becker’s writing demonstrated that his intuitions were right.
Given this, is there an alternative to burying one’s head in the sand by being immersed in nostalgia on one hand, or trying to immortalize ourselves by proxy on the other? Yes, memento mori – remember that you will die. Generals in the Roman Empire, on parade through the streets after victorious conquests, had servants walking behind them and quietly repeating those words as a hedge against vanity and arrogance.
Michel de Montaigne, the famous 16th century essayist, remarked that a writer’s working space ought to include a view of the cemetery, as it tends to sharpen one’s thinking (I have to make do with a field of winter-withered grass that fronts up to set of railroad tracks).
And in Mexico the Day of the Dead is celebrated yearly, in what can only be described as an anti-holiday by comparison to the tone of most American ones. It is neither an escape-from-reality ritual nor a glamorizing of death, but a recognition of an inescapable fact. Interestingly, when we look at measures of happiness via international surveys that are concerned with more than GDP and income, we find that Mexicans are among the most contented people in the world.
On the level of personal experience, I can only say that the conditions that led to my previously mentioned surgery brought into sharp relief a fact that I knew, but had never truly internalized; I have an expiration date. I don’t know what that date is, but I know it’s there in a way that goes beyond a simple recitation of fact.
This gives “live each day as though it were your last” a different meaning from the success-chasing dreams of positive motivational gurus. Your connection to life has to be altered, away from concerns about what ought to be or should have been, and focused on what actually is. You have to stop substituting denial for real contentment. Death is intricately connected with life, and both of them are equally a part of your existence. It goes against our natural (or at least cultural) tendencies, but when we fully accept and embrace the unavoidable fact of death, we actually end up in a more direct and honest embrace of life. That’s what I wish I had understood, and could have told my distraught friend at the time.
All external expectations, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important… remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.