Living with thoughts of death

I dread the day that the monotonous equilibrium of those every day and simplistic certainties I take for granted — health, safety, the comfort of hearing my mother trudging down the stairs every morning, the expectant sound of gravel crunching under my sister’s tyres as she arrives home from work every day at 6pm — is jerked into cold, cataclysmic suspension.

Nestled in the pseudo-cocoon of ignorance and denial,

Pried open by a all at once distant and familiar sinister irony:

Time, fate, life, death.

I fool myself into thinking it’s a long way off, bury my head in the sand, try not to think about it, immersed in and distracted by the solace of structure and routine. Yet in the back of my mind it’s always there, silent and shrouded but lurking around every corner; the unwelcome guest at every family meal, inescapable as a shadow in the noon day sun. An ever-present reminder burrowing into the fine lines upon my grandmother’s face; the disquieting implication behind stiffing limbs, muscle tremors, and the passage of time: none of this will last.

Sometimes I look at the people I love — focus on their faces until my eyes sting, willing my retinas to burn their image into sacrosanct memory — every pore, scar, freckle, discolouration, stray hair. Saving the image for the day I absolutely know exists, somewhere in the lottery of the future, predetermined, pre-penned into every new calendar I buy.

I understand now why humans find so much comfort in conventionality, why they invent tradition, embrace familiarity: these things are merely weapons against that faceless, sinister fact closing in a little further each day we are alive, which promises but one thing; to disrupt beyond reparation everything about an existence we thought we once knew.

It circles. It stalks from afar. I feel it even in my happiest moments; a pang of dysphoria, the subtle dread of certainty. One day I will hug my mother for the last time. I stand in my garden. Take in the space I currently occupy. One day it will no longer be mine. I breathe, oxygen facilitated by trees who will outlive me. We are all nature’s tenants, I think to myself as I leave imprints in the grass of a thousand former footprints.

Constantly bracing, constantly preparing. For the horror I know, I know, I know — beyond all earthly comprehension — awaits.

Heidegger, in his magnum opus Being and Time, called this existential orientation “Being-towards-death” — he argued the only way to live authentically is to constantly acknowledge our own death. Sound morbid? Welcome to existentialism . I wrote my 10,000 word undergraduate thesis on it. I’m fun at parties, I swear.

“To love someone is firstly to confess: I am prepared to be devastated by you.”

Each time I am deeply, profoundly hurt there is an overwhelming, dread-filled sense of inevitability and resignation that feels something like: “Oh god, this is it. This is the one that’ll do it. This is the one that’ll finally break me. My heart just can’t take it again.” Each time I sit, crushed, inconsolable, waiting for the world to end — and each time it begins again in the morning. My fragile, bruised heart: a fox fleeing bloodhounds – stricken but stoic – carries on beating; blood keeps pumping; lungs keep inhaling, keep exhaling; tear ducts (which I am certain have well exhausted their function by now) spill anew once more. Ups and downs. Loss and adjustment. And yet, I – somehow – despite it all – do not, will not – lose the fundamental trust and faith I feel towards humans and nature and friendship and joy and love. To possess the capacity to love another person – without judgement, without agenda – is a gift. To own the capacity to feel deeply is a gift. Connectedness to another – passing or permanent – is a gift. Sometimes people shine their light on you only briefly: entering your life unannounced and unexpected, inspiring and enriching and emboldening your very soul, and then they are gone, it seems, as soon as they appear, vacating the home they made in your heart. It’s brutal, it’s unfair, but I refuse to let grief take the shape of anger; to demonise or vilify. I will cherish the memories and the lessons and the bond – the capacity to find fulfilment and joy and understanding and commonality in another human. To be able to love and love unconditionally – I am so, so lucky.

“Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it” David Foster-Wallace wrote once. To feel deep pain is to feel deep love – absence always denotes a presence. All I strive for anymore is the grace to accept and to let go – with dignity, with decorum – everything which does not (will not, can not) whole-heartedly choose me back.

(‘White Nights’ by Dostoevsky, p. 35)

Emily Dickinson, and some thoughts on Grief

Emily Dickinson wrote the above poem during a period of immense personal and collective grief while the English Civil War raged around her.

“What is that inextinguishable flame that goes on flickering in the bleak, dark chamber of our being when something of vital importance is missing, or lost?”

Loss visits every human life. It is unavoidable. Inevitable. Philosophers like Feuerbach (and the writers of Love Actually) would argue that the one unifying experience across humanity is love, and I used to retaliate – in typical cynical Charlie fashion – that no; if one such universal experience exists then it is undeniably the anguish of grief. But then, I realised, the two are intertwined. One cannot exist without the other. Grief is but a measure of immeasurable love; the thing left over, the imprint of impact. You cannot feel grief if you have not felt love. And, in acknowledging that, we might (and I really try to do this) actually start to be able to view grief as a beautiful thing; something to embrace, to celebrate: the tangible evidence of all the love that’s left, that stays with (enriches, sustains, comforts) us, until – and even after – we ourselves are gone.

The grace with which we adapt to and accept the sudden descent into the darkness of grief may be the greatest measure of resilience — but it’s also an indication of the absurdity and duality of what it means to truly be human: to live (to accept death), to love (to ultimately lose). To be cognizant of eternity in an instant, to be capable of infinity. And that might be the most miraculous thing of all: to wander around alone – unguarded, unmoored – without matchstick or map – knowing that the darkness is creeping up behind us — gaining on us — will eventually and inevitably catch us one day — yet still unflinchingly trusting that those few, fleeting moments in the light have been worth it when the jaws close in.

the double bind of disenchantment

I seem to have discovered the optimism in cynicism:

it is both a blessing and a curse to have an untethered imagination,

for no event in actuality – good or bad – can ever quite match it.

Poetic beauty? Romantic devastation?

Always an illusion,

always an imitation.