Intimations of Mortality

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- My friend Alec sent this brief note to me this morning:

“A light went out in our bathroom.  I remember that I changed it 14 years ago.  I showed my son how to do it, thinking surely it is the last time that I’ll change it.”

It reminded me of something Gary North, who was in his mid-sixties at the time, wrote about a dozen years ago. It went something like this:

“Just bought a suit. It’s inexpensive but well made, a nondescript charcoal gray that I can wear for almost any occasion. A good investment, considering the likelihood that this may be the last suit I ever buy.”

It stunned – and spooked – me.

Now I’m doing the same thing. All the time.

Should I get a new car? I don’t see why. I have more cars than I need right now. The car I drive is an Audi S5 coupe. I bought it slightly used five years ago. It’s fantastic – reliable and fun.

The other two, a 27-year-old Acura NSX and a 13-year-old BMW 850, are rarely used. Should I sell them? No. They cost almost nothing to maintain. And they will likely hold their value. Someone will figure out what to do with them when I die.

The last suit I bought – for Patrick’s wedding five years ago… was that my last? Yes, I think it was. I have a half-dozen perfectly good suits in my closet. I might wear each of them once a year.

Sometimes these intimations of mortality prompt me to spend more.

“A six-foot tree would be one-quarter the price,” Paul Craft, my palm tree consultant, tells me. “And it will be 30 feet tall in only 15 or 20 years.”

Only 15 or 20 years?” I say, laughing and shaking my head. “No. Order the biggest one you can find.”

We joke about death, but only to trivialize it, to temporarily diminish the dread.

At my book club meeting last night, we talked about the fear of death. (We were reviewing two books: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari and The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant.) About half of the group (four) admitted to that fear. The other half said they didn’t. I said that the only way one can be fearless about one’s death is to deny it. I said something like, “If you really contemplate your own death, the utter extinction of your personal self, you cannot feel anything but terror.”

I did not persuade them.

Sapiens could be said to be a book about the evolution of the human brain – the story, Harari argues, of our species becoming more social, developing language, myth, and hierarchies, which allowed us to dominate all the other “great apes.”

This makes some sense to me as a theory of evolution. But it offers little to explain my conscious experience of life, neither of my quotidian experience nor of conscious experience generally.

In my mind, denying death is the most constant and critical function of the human brain. Without the brain’s amazing ability to obliterate the terror of death, we could not carry on productive lives. We could not work well or love well or even contemplate making anything worth making.

“Why should I fear death?” Epicurus, the great Greek philosopher, said. “If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?”

And yet we fear it.

We fear death because we know that this precious consciousness that we know as life will someday be gone, completely and forever.

Philosophy may give us reasons to accept death. Religion may give us reasons to embrace it. But neither can deny the truth that is embedded in our DNA: Death is the end of the individual conscious ego.

So what can we do?

When it comes to the death of others, we can weep. And we can get busy. And we can welcome forgetfulness.

As for our own deaths, we can – and should – embrace and practice denial. For three reasons:

* in order to make our existential life worth living

* in order to make things that we can leave to others who will live beyond us

* in order to teach something to others who will carry that with them – and, thereby, carry a fragment of us, after we are gone

How does one practice denial? By opening the mind to living. Because, as Bob Dylan says, if you are not busy being born, you are busy dying.