The Romans had a fine tradition of never presuming to write a man’s (it was always a man’s) biography until he died. I have become convinced of the wisdom of this tradition.
Death changes how we understand life.
Death is the final point within any individuals story. We know that wherever the narrative arc begins, no matter where we find the stage of the story now, its ultimate destination is death’s door.
How, when, why the story reaches its end can change depending on the circumstances. An unfortunate child might grasp a few breaths between its first and last. A fortunate one might stretch that gap by more than a 100 years. An unfortunate one might endure decades of drudgery, ill-health and oppression. A fortunate one might endure decades of wealth, status and health before contently finding a culmination to life. Having lived these different trajectories, each of these lives will end up at the same final point.
To us, all these differences, differences in our comparative trajectories, are important. When, how why, what of our lives and deaths are what we consider to be life’s most relevant particulars. But that does not let us shrink, and we should not shrink, from the central truth. That this narrative arc – this story we are living, which that disembodied voice in our head narrates and calls our lives – ends in the certainty of death’s embrace.
On one level, is it not astounding that we get to live stories that end entirely predictably? Everyone can predict - how anyone – everyone – else’s story will end.
On another level, it seems to be trite to me that if we know how our story ends, then doesn’t the ending affect how we decide to live? Doesn’t this certainty have any effect on the choices we make now?
It must have that effect, The finite nature of life skews how we live it. In the same way that knowing the ending of a novel changes how we appreciate the book, knowing the end of our lives affect how we live our lives.
For me, reeling from a year where death has been a tangible experience, a recurring theme, I’m still trying to reconstruct that lesson to my own satisfaction.
There are the trite things that people say. On their death bed, no one ever wished they’d spent another day at the office. On their death bed, no one ever wished they’d done more work. On their death bed, no one ever wished they’d eaten more junk food. That kind of thing.
For my part, I feel this realisation has intensified my appreciation for life. Things I put up with or am a part of now seem empty to me. I’m trying so hard to focus upon the things that have meaning.
Which isn’t easy to do, since its hard to be sure what, if anything, has any meaning. Sure things have a meaning because society, tradition, culture or religion imbue them with meaning or say they have meaning. And some things have meaning on a materialistic level, in that they are needed to sustain life.
On the same level, it isn’t easy to intuit what test I’m meant to use to decide whether something has meaning – or even worse – sufficient meaning. Some things, intellectually, have meaning. Some things, emotionally, have meaning. Some things, spiritually, have meaning.
Little feels like it has sufficient meaning. For me this is the enduring challenge, that there is very little sufficient meaning to be found.
That makes it nigh impossible to keep living as normal.