“The trouble is, we think we have time.”

Person under setting sun

Okay. Let’s start with a trigger warning. If you’re in a difficult place right now, you might not want to read any further. I’m going to talk about life, and about the thing that’s so inextricably related to it, death. I don’t think it’s going to be a very sad post, but the reader might disagree. Hence the trigger warning. Here we go.

If you’d asked me about 4 weeks ago, “How are you going?” I probably would have answered, “Not too bad,” or “I’m fine, thanks.” If you’d asked me the same question only 2 weeks later, my answer would be “Do you want to full version or the abridged one?” Because it was then that it hit me like a ton of bricks. At some point, I’m not going to be around any more.

The thing is, I’ve always known this. Everyone knows this. We live life knowing that it ends at some point. Lucky for us, we don’t usually pay that much attention to the end (if we did, life would be unbearable). We’ll be old, we’ll have lived a fulfilling life, and can look back with satisfaction.

I lost my grandmother when I was only 6 months old. Naturally, I can’t remember this. Both my grandfathers died within about 3 years from each other, when I was 12 and 15. Not longer after, the mother of my teenage crush died, far too young. My other grandmother died in 1999 when I was 27. You see, it’s not that I’ve never been around death. But knowing about it, and fully realising that it is inevitably going to happen to me, is tough. What is even harder, though, is understanding that it can potentially happen at any time and without warning. Life is incredibly fragile.

It was only last week that I read about a medical student who died at age 20 from a heart attack. She probably thought she was going to be a doctor, help people with medical issues, make a difference, be a mum, a grandmother, be 80-ish when she’d die, but she didn’t make it. By a long shot. Statistics mean nothing to individuals.

When the realisation of my own mortality kicked in, I didn’t sleep very well for a few nights. To be fair: I was a bit scared to go to sleep. Anything might happen during the night.

Paradoxically, I don’t fear death itself. To me, it’s like a state of sleep that you don’t wake up from. When you go to sleep, you don’t know that you’re sleeping. Time does not exist when you sleep. You only know you’ve slept because, for instance, the light in the room as changed. Or you’ve woken up from a dream. Or you feel differently (rested, I hope). But more than once I was woken my by wife because I was snoring, while I thought I was fully awake. I did not register I was asleep at all; I only registered my waking minutes as if they were continuous.

I don’t know what happened before I was born; there is absolutely nothing real about that very, very long period of time (13.8 billion years if you subscribe to the Big Bang Theory, and who knows how long before that — whatever that means). The reality I experience is my reality alone, and I only experience it when I’m awake, aware. Anything else simply doesn’t exist, at best we can infer it.

I don’t believe in an after-life. I don’t believe in heaven. I don’t believe in reincarnation. The life we live is the only one we get. According to the theory of evolution, by Charles Darwin, we’re merely here to pass on our genes to the next generation and only the fittest survive. We’re a bag of water that happens to have evolved to have self-awareness and the ability to ask philosophical questions. (How cool is that, though?!) We experience the world through a very limited set of senses. For instance, our eyes are only capable of seeing a tiny, tiny sliver of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. We only hear frequencies up to ~16kHz (when we’re young). There is a lot that we’re not even aware of, that we can only see or hear using measurement devices. But it’s all we’ve needed to evolve to where we are now.

We’re a bag of water that happens to have evolved to have self-awareness and the ability to ask philosophical questions.

Because we’re self-aware, and aware of our mortality, we’ve always been looking for meaning. Some people may react to what I just wrote with a question like “But what’s the point then?” Sure, good question. But what’s the point of living life in order to “get to heaven”? Why this elaborate scheme to “test” people for their worthiness? Why would a god create people in the first place? Was he bored? Where do souls come from before they ‘occupy’ a human body? Oh, and the inevitable question: where did that god come from? Not to mention the most philosophical question of all: why is there anything at all? In all fairness: I don’t have the answer to any of those questions.

What I think happened to me a few weeks ago is that my world-view finally really caught up with me. I’m only human, and dealing with our mortality is probably the hardest thing we’ll ever do. I have to (want to) make sense of my place in the world, and think about what I want to do with the limited time I have on Earth. I’ll have to make a conscious decision not to be haunted by death, because that’s no way to live. Based on my own beliefs, there is some consolation in the fact that I won’t be aware of my own death. Here’s a quote from Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who lived around 300 BC:

“Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality.” — Epicurus

Alexander Kjerulf sums it up really nicely in his book ‘Leading with Happiness’: “You shouldn’t fear death, because once you’re dead, you won’t be around for it.” Words to live by, quite literally.

Nobody knows how much time we have left, even though we think we have all the time in the world. That’s just the way it is. But we can make a decision as to how we want to spend the time we do have. It’s at the top of my mind right now, I can assure you.


Update: Venera (who was the inspiration) informed me the title comes from ‘Buddha’s Little Instruction Book’.