The Bad Thing About Dying
Many religions teach us that there is a “better place” awaiting us when we depart this earthly plane. Whether it’s heaven, nirvana, or some parallel universe where Louis Armstrong provides the soundtrack and ice cream doesn’t make you fat, many of us look forward to an Elysium in which all our mundane fears and woes melt away in the mist. That sure beats a world where cruelty, malice, and astonishing avarice are the norms.
Yet how many of us are rushing headlong to get there? Besides Islamic terrorists with visions of attendant virgins dancing in their heads?
Dying, some say, is the beginning of a new journey. If you subscribe to the concept of reincarnation, death on earth represents the commencement of a new life, albeit possibly one as a mosquito or, perhaps, an even lower form of life, like a tobacco company lobbyist.
For those who don’t believe either of these sunny scenarios, death is neither a beginning nor a transformation. It’s merely the end. Or, more precisely, The End. Your story, the elaborate narrative you constructed with your loves and losses, your triumphs and failures, all the strutting and fretting that Shakespeare noted — your magnificent hour upon the stage is over. All the effort in accumulating money and influence, sex and satisfaction — all the fervent questing — leads, ultimately, to nothing. Nothing for you, that is. The memories you leave behind, the stories that you help write, even in absentia, continue (possibly in perpetuity) in the form of children and art and buildings with your name affixed to them. Your legacy lives on. You just don’t get to enjoy it.
This is the really bad part about dying. You don’t get to experience what happens next.
You don’t see how the story — the bigger story, the one in which your story is but a tiny chapter — ends. Our brethren who perished upon the tip of a crossbow-launched arrow in 1066 couldn’t possibly have imagined a world — their world — in which automobiles and computers and faucets that produce potable water are part of everyday life. Could the denizens of Earth during the Holy Roman Empire have envisioned a world in which Bach and Newton and a democratic country where everyone elects their (easily corrupted) leaders and court jesters are available in the home 24 hours a day through a magic box? Can we foresee what life on earth will be like 2000 years from now?
We who dabble in literature and music and other allegedly enduring disciplines wonder periodically what, if anything, will our mark upon the future be. We who have friends, enemies, lovers, students, offspring, dear ones — that is to say all of us — wonder what will become of the menagerie we leave behind.
The bad thing about dying is that we don’t get to participate in any of it. You’re gone, sent to the sidelines while everyone else still in the game gets to play.
Which is a fine reason to have a great and grand time while you still can — no matter what awaits you when the clock expires.