memento mori.

“Vanitas Still Life” by Pieter Claesz, 1630. (Photo: Public domain via Wikipedia)

I don’t have a problem with death. (My death, anyway.) I have more moments of self-preservation than not, of course — I’m not a psycho — but ultimately, death comes for us all. There’s not much that can be done about it.

I’ve thought about this at some length, giving it careful consideration, (and not so careful, possibly drunken consideration). I know that I’d love to be burned on a pyre like a Viking. Something primitive. Something savage. Push me out to sea. Burn me with my weapons and my favorite horse, put the coins on my eyes, send me off with a dirge and a plea to my forefathers and mothers to see me through to Valhalla. Or whatever.

When I was in college, I memorized Hamlet’s famous soliloquy to use as a mantra when I’d feel a panic attack coming on. My anxiety is not an issue anymore, but Hamlet’s words still detach themselves from my long term memory and float to the surface occasionally, mostly adding another layer of cliche to any ruminations on death in which I may be momentarily indulging. I won’t subject you to any more than is necessary, but know that “undiscovered country” has flitted through my mind at least three times since I began this post.

Back to the matter at hand.

Death is on everyone’s mind lately, our lazy detachment from the rhythms of the natural world, (which most of Earth’s less wealthy populations don’t have the luxury of avoiding) having enabled our obliviousness up until this point. This worse-than-flu-not-quite-the-black-death has forced us to face the truth of our mortality, with some rather interesting results. The frantic collective recoil from this realization is quite a scene. We have fooled ourselves into believing we are immortal, we believe in nothing but ourselves, and suddenly, the bottom drops out of these consensual hallucinations and we are left with — what?

Sitting alone in one’s apartment with only cats to keep you company as an invisible enemy stalks the aisles of your favorite Trader Joe’s is sobering. It may dawn on you that none of those 12k Instagram followers is any more than an amateurishly edited profile shot, with whom you may exchange one or two digital sentences — max — despite all of the effort you’ve put into showcasing your imaginary life. It’s got to be terrifying.

I’m not shaming you, you know. My life, even before the Great Unraveling, had become one in which nearly all of my interactions with adults happened online. And, being in the throes of the lamest midlife crisis in recorded history, this fake digital life has been accompanied by an internal Greek Chorus reciting a litany of my failures and shortcomings, both private and public. And the Great Isolation hasn’t made it any easier. I’ve become aware that, though I am surrounded by people, I am still quite alone.

We’re all empty, on some level, but some of us are better at filling our time with nothing in order to ignore it. Humankind cannot evade the memento mori woven into the fabric of our souls, regardless of our herculean efforts to simply NOT DEAL. We’re bad at reality, but even worse at avoiding it. We need to be reminded that our time on earth is fleeting, not as a means of self-inflicted torture, but as motivation to Do Things. Allowing ourselves to accept that Death will come, most often unexpectedly, is key to our development as humans. Death gives Life depth. This allows us to be fully present, if we can learn to embrace the suck of living just long enough to learn lessons that are no longer applicable.

It may seem odd that I find this subject worthy of extensive consideration, but we should all take the time to confront the finite nature of our time here. Life is rarely easy and never fair, but there is more to this existence than just the fear of something after death, that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns that keeps us clinging to an empty life full of distractions. There’s something else, something tugging at the edges of your consciousness. In the silence. In the sleepless nights spent staring at the ceiling or out the window. There’s something real that gives life meaning, and it can’t be found in self-help books or extensive therapy.

It’s there, if you want it. Looking beyond yourself is a start.

[Addendum: I do apologize for succumbing to my favorite Hamlet cliche. I just can’t help myself. Once an English literature major, always an English literature major. Insert shrugging Elmo gif.]

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