Mortality and Meaning

Mortality and Meaning

My Dad, me, my Mom and my brother

I haven’t posted in a few weeks. I think the reason I haven’t is not that I didn’t have anything to say. It’s more that I had too much to say but I didn’t know how to say it.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been confronted with mortality. Death has affected the lives of people that I know and love in a profound way. I am not going to go into details because they are not mine to share. I have just written and erased several tries at obliquely describing the situations to give a sense of the horrible tragedy but I’ve realized it’s morbid and unnecessary. You, dear reader, don’t need information about other people’s lives. If you’re over the age of 10 (and if you’re not, stop reading this now and go play outside) you’re aware that everyone dies.

That’s the bottom, top and every line. Living things eventually die. People I know have and will die. I will die. You will die.

This calls up another disturbing truth. Everything changes and we have almost no control over anything.

As individual human beings, our childhood development can be seen as a process of rebelling against a lack of control. Infants can do nothing but cry when something in the environment (or their stomach or diaper) is not working for them so that’s what they do. Next, we learn to grab and manipulate things with our hands and then we learn to control our bodies so we can move around the world. The twos are terrible because we learn the word “no” and use it as much as possible as we learn new ways to control the people (especially those all-powerful grown-ups) around us. Next we learn “mine” and “sharing” and “not fair.” Then we learn how to throw things and read things and write things and sue people and invest in stocks and drive cars and fly planes and manipulate social networks to effect national elections and stuff like that.

My Dad and me. He was the age I am now in this picture.

We crave control.

Part of the motivation for wanting control is that we’re hardwired to enjoy it. One of the most wonderful things in life is the dance of a toddler who is just reveling in her ability to move. For me, the joy of shooting a successful jump shot never diminishes. That moment of satisfaction is sublime and I hope I can continue doing it for a long time.

But we’re also afraid of a lack of control. Terrified of it in fact. We fear the unknown and the dark and anything new or unfamiliar. We fear change. You could say that the ultimate evidence of our lack of control is death and so we are especially afraid of death but that wouldn’t really be accurate. Death is actually the reason we fear a lack of control. Death is why we fear change.

Evolution is spurred by death. We are here because our ancestors didn’t die before they had offspring. They survived by learning to control their bodies so they could evade some deadly threats and to control their environment enough to eliminate other deadly threats. They climbed trees to avoid sabre-toothed cats and then used sharpened sticks to kill all the sabre-toothed cats.*

So we fear death. In fact, all our fears are, ultimately, our caveman brain/body system’s way of strongly signalling us to avoid possible death. We avoid perceived risk because we fear death. We fear being ostracized because we fear getting kicked out of the tribe which would lead to death because the sabre-toothed cats will eat us while we sleep.**

The irony is that we do everything we can to avoid death including not think about it and yet it is the only thing that is certain. Believe it or not we are all going to die.

This is awful news.

Worse is that everyone we know is going to die. Keanu Reeves was recently asked by Stephen Cobert what he thought happened after people died. Keanu simply said “I know the ones who love us are going to miss us.”

This brings tears to my eyes even as I type this. It is profoundly true and profoundly sad. I miss my dad and I miss friends who have died. No matter what you believe happens after you die, we know that we are no longer here on earth in the same way.

My Dad and my son (he was born with a mohawk, we didn’t cut it that way!)

So what is there to do with this information?

Here’s what I propose. Love people harder. Love yourself and love what you do. Treat this life like it’s the only one you have. Live better. Don’t escape life with chemicals and don’t risk death foolishly but also don’t avoid what you fear. The worst is actually going to happen eventually no matter what anyway so don’t let the fear of the worst keep you from doing what you love or what you want to do.

If you have resentment or unexpressed feelings, deal with them now. If you have things you want to do someday, do them now. If there is someone you’d like to talk to someday, call them today.

Be the best version of you that you can be. Live the best version of your life. Love and care for those around you. This life is short and we have very little control over any of it.

My father died on Tuesday, June 18, 2013, after a freak accident that happened the Monday morning before. I was able to be with him when he passed away but he was not conscious. The day before the accident I intended to call him but the day slipped away and I never got around to it. June 16, 2013 was a Sunday. It was Father’s Day.

I will always, always, always regret not making that call.

*At the same time, we have our demise programmed into our DNA. As far as I understand the science, cellular breakdown that eventually leads to death is not necessary for the survival of the individual but it is vital to the survival and evolution of the species in the long run.

**I could (and will) go on and on about how hilariously inappropriate much of our fear is. It makes sense to avoid deadly situations but our judgement about what is deadly is based on old information, like 30,000 years old. As far as our bodies are concerned, the fear of failing that keeps us from trying something new is as valid as our fear of being eaten by a hungry crocodile. We have a profound risk assessment problem.

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