We’ve all heard the cliché — and all clichés are worth thinking about — about what we’ll think about on our dying day. The moments that we reminisce fondly about when we’re nearing the end of conscious existence, when we know we only have a bit more time to reminisce fondly at all, won’t be the evenings we focused on work instead of walking our dogs, or cooking dinner with our grandparents, or whatever we could do that brings us joy. This cliché is a cliché for a reason: It is the truth.
The fucked up thing about it all is that we don’t really have a choice. Work culture, especially in America, is that work is your life and life is your work. The time we spend working is more time than we spend doing most anything else. Saturdays and Sundays — there is nothing inherently different between a Saturday and a Tuesday from the perspective of earth or the universe — are the days where we are traditionally meant to relax and rest, as prescribed by most religious doctrine which has informed the way societies operate. The workweek is a human-invented concept in and of itself; most of what we typically call “work” exists only because we created it and thus is it so. Forgive me as I wax poetically on the nature of it all, but I firmly believe it’s in realizing the absurdity of everywhere where we can hone in and focus on the real reality.
Bare with me for a second — and I’m kindly asking you to join me on this endeavor. In the field of physics, there is a pursuit of a “grand unifying theory.” This grand unifying theory is intended to merge two of the most prominent theories in physics: quantum mechanics and relativity. Quantum mechanics is the study of the infinitesimal; the field seeks out to explain subatomic particles and how they give rise to larger constellations of particles and objects and the interaction between the world you perceive. Relativity seeks to explain the astronomical, both literally and metaphorically; it is the science of how planets interact with one another and how galaxies interact with other galaxies and how literal constellations interact with other constellations most of which is outside the realm of human imagination. These astrophysicists commit decades of their lives to attempt to — it’s not even guaranteed they will ever know — the ultimate reality that gives rise to all the menial shit we think about like emails and “circling back” and Zoom calls. To some, their work may be more important than explaining existence; once you know why existence is, what does it matter? What exists underneath it all doesn’t matter much compared to how it’s all perceived. Whether or not there is a human to perceive it doesn’t much matter at all.
Think about a medication. You can explain a medication from every direction; how does it work, what is it supposed to do, what biomarkers will be impacted by this medication, what symptoms will it help, what side effects will it create, how does it break down in the body, how often should it be taken. But none of that matters if the person taking the medication doesn’t feel like it works. If I can explain the physics of the universe and I still don’t enjoy my time being alive, what does it matter?
I like to think about the atoms that make up the desk that my computer is placed on. Those atoms have no conception of their existence, but they work in concert with one another to exist as a hard desk that can support my laptop and my arms as they rest on the desk even though most of the desk is empty space. Those atoms provide me value because I needed somewhere to place my laptop. I know they exist, but even if I didn’t — like those not educated in basic physics or those who lived before modern atomic theory — they would still exist in their form doing whatever they were doing whether or not I perceived them at all.
We only have so much control over how we spend our time on this planet. I worry that most of us have an idea of how we think we need to spend our time that we never entirely reconsider. I fear that some of us don’t even know that we’re allowed to reconsider how we spend our time as thinking creatures. It is the gravest fear of mine that will life will begin passing me by without me recognizing it; days blending into weeks, weeks blending into years, years blending into decades until that last edifying moment when my life contracts. I believe, towards the very end, we’ll have a moment of clarity where we realize our time is finally reaching its conclusion, and in that moment, I believe we will have a feeling that encapsulates our entire existence. I hope to experience peace.
You know when you can’t seem to make a decision? On the surface, it really seems like a toss-up. Whether you’re thinking about food or how you feel about somebody. In those moments, I’ve learned to imagine it really is a coin toss; which of the two events, if somebody were to toss a coin up, would I be slightly hoping for as I watch the coin twirl in the air? For those toss-up moments, they usually aren’t toss-ups. Our gut tends to lean in one direction and it may not seem like it at first, but our minds are capable of imagining what we really want. We have to allow ourselves to consider the world where we allow ourselves to feel this way.
It’s funny; those moments where we have trouble making a decision, I don’t think they’re really about that specific decision. I think we limit ourselves in so many ways, either because we think we should go with one decision because of expectations from society or loved ones or even ourselves or any other number of reasons. When it comes down to it, in a lot of ways, life is both more simple and more complicated than we make it out to be.
When I write essays like this, I find myself experiencing a complicated blend of emotions. I feel sad that the world exists with so much suffering. Suffering may be a part of the human condition and suffering may allow us to experience the spectrum of beautiful emotions but suffering sucks and the thought of anybody, humans, animals, or otherwise suffering is a generally sad thing to consider. I also feel better as I experiment with articulating these feelings that come with being alive. It helps me to see that there is so much more to life than being overcommitted to things that don’t bring me joy. There are always going to be things we have to do that don’t bring us joy but through spending our time doing those things that do bring us joy, we learn how to allow ourselves to experience joy. We should prioritize those moments and learn how to apply those moments of joy to the most boring parts of existence. And I feel empowered as I try to articulate these feelings to you. I hope these feelings are relatable. I do care that you feel validated as a person, but even if these feelings that I’m trying to articulate with two-dimensional words on your screen don’t mean much to you, they still mean a lot to me.
I think about those particles that make up the world around us. You know those paintings that from afar look like one image but as you zoom in closer and closer you realize the painting is composed of hundreds of little different photos? Those photos working in concert with one another to give the perspective of something together when they are considered all together is not that much unlike how alllllll the tiny particles in the world give rise to something that looks and functions completely differently. It’s remarkable how there is a world smaller than anything that we can perceive that looks so much different from what we see when we use our eyes. When the astronauts on the moon looked back at earth, they didn’t see billions of human beings or trees or animals or society or buildings or cities; they saw a planet with clouds and only borders delineating land from sea. But they knew what was happening on the planet, or at least they had a general idea; they didn’t know who won what sports event or what political event occurred but they knew society was continuing to exist. The astronauts had more than one perspective: They saw both a planet with clouds, land, and sea and they saw a planet where society existed. When we look at a desk, we know that there is an infinitesimal world beneath our fingertips because we have rigorously studied the microscopic world. We built tools to perceive the world. It’s possible for us to hold these seemingly opposing realities in our minds. The astronauts looked down at a planet that was composed of tiny humans who were composed of tinier atoms. They are all real.
The world we look at when we look at what’s around us — politics, work, sports, all of it — is all a portrait of something different when you look at it a bit more deeply. The world you look at is the both a bigger version of a different world and a smaller version of another different world. Each person is a product of their friends, family, enemies, allies, circumstances, their decisions, fate, fortune, the universe and each person makes up a bigger group of people or society or organization. We are allowed to strip the way we see the world down a bit. We’re allowed to look at it and ask ourselves why does it exist in this way. Why do we live in this way. Maybe it’s why do you work in a certain job or maybe it’s why do you keep certain people around or maybe it’s why do you worry someone might judge your outfit; whatever it is, we are allowed to ask ourselves why. Just as we are allowed to look at a desk and ask why it exists in the form it does.
It’s liberating and terrifying once we allow ourselves this freedom. I think back to when my sister died. I experienced joy the day after she died; I don’t remember what but I remember laughing at something. I got angry with myself; no, no, Alyssa isn’t here, there is no more joy. But what the fuck would forcing myself not to feel joy do; Alyssa wouldn’t want me to force sorrow upon myself and forcing myself out of joy sure as hell wasn’t bringing my sister back. Grief, sorrow, heartbreak, pain; it’s all complicated. But joy is fortunate, and with all the suffering in the world, there has never been a moment of joy that was a waste.
When I am near my dying moment, I won’t look back and regret the moments of joy I experienced. I’ll look back and regret the moments of joy that I stole from myself. When I look back at my life and it’s merely a past constellation of linked moments and it appears as a blur, I can only hope that blur is an existence that I can reminisce fondly upon. It is only through allowing ourselves to ask why that we allow ourselves the chance to fully experience the life we live.
So why do I write about death? Because it’s how I learned to ask myself why.