I’m going to ask you to take a second to visualize this moment.
You're 12 years old. You’ve already been to dozens and dozens of appointments for an “illness” you don’t fully understand. Sure, you do weird “treatments” for it every day and you have your parents give you medicine twice a day and also before you eat. You have to have a school peer accompany you to the nurse’s office before lunch every day to get your medicine and at the beginning of every year, you explain to them you have an “illness” that comes with a cough, “but don’t worry! It isn’t contagious, I promise.” You’ve always suspected something about your life isn’t quite right, but aside from all that, you’re completely “normal.”
At one of those many doctor’s appointments, you happen to open a calendar plastered with similar children your age. On one of the pages is a boy not much older than you with a fawning profile that ends with this not-so-cryptic quote: “and [insert name] doesn’t even let the short life expectancy scare him!”
Remember, you’re a 12-year-old child.
I think most humans just want to believe they are immortal in some way. To some people, they may turn to God, where Heaven offers literal immortality. I think, in a way, having children, to some extent, may satiate the craving for immortality; you’re literally passing on your DNA to another human that will hopefully continue that lineage longer. Other people pursue another form of immortality: creating their art.
I write because once my words are published – whether it’s a blog, a journal entry, a published piece – they enter the ether. I can change the words after the fact by editing it, but I can never change how I felt when writing those, and one day, I’ll never be able to edit them again. When I’m gone, sooner or later, I leave behind my writings. I leave behind my words that were streamed onto paper directly from thoughts that were forming by the countless neural connections firing inside my brain. There’s something so romantic, so transcendent, so perpetual, in that someone can visit my thoughts when I’m eventually gone.
I write because it offers me control, a form of control that I don’t have over my own body. I have a body that will eventually betray itself. In end-stage CF, my lungs will continue to scar, inflame, succumb, reaching a point where the only remaining option is a new, secondary disease: lung transplant. After a transplant, the body is constantly trying to attack itself.
Writing allows me a semblance of control over my reality. Writing is how I cope with my suffering.
I finished my first book of 2018 yesterday. It’s called Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As a writer, she wanted to write what was going through her mind as she was dying. The book is a tribute to writing, the process of dying, family, finding our place in the world, and death itself. The quote on the front, from The New York Times, is “Bracing and beautiful… Every human should read it.”
I would absolutely recommend it. I’ve also read a similar book, written by Dr. Paul Kalanithi after he was diagnosed with cancer, called When Breath Becomes Air. Both are truly special and evocative pieces of prose, capable of only being written by people that have deeply contemplated the end of their lives.
I hope it doesn’t come off as self-congratulatory to say that I felt that these lessons were flashbacks or déja vu, but they are concepts I’ve considered profoundly. I wanted to start off 2018 by reading a book that would bring that out of me. I wanted to feel the ephemeral feeling of being transported to the questions that only an experience like thinking about dying can conjure. What do we hold precious? What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to live a good life? At the end, these questions will probably dissipate for most of us. But these questions guide us in the right direction of how we want to live our lives. They can steer us towards our priorities and how we can be better people to achieve those goals. They can help us be better humans to our fellow humans, especially the ones we care about greatly, as well as to the animals of the world and our environment. Only considering death can allow us to realize what it means to feel alive. And the only way we can shed our fear of death is by feeling alive.
That thought experiment from the beginning was my “consciousness” moment; the moment I became acutely aware of death. That single moment has affected me nearly every single day since I was that young, petrified boy. I will never forget the day I discovered that my life would never be like those around me. That day is what led me to today, where I’m currently writing about my fixation with death and how I contemplate it so often so I can stop being scared of wasting my life.
To finish, I want to leave you with a second thought experiment.
If you were to be informed at this exact moment that you only had 5 years to live, how would you live differently? 1 year? 6 months? 1 month? What about a week? Or worst yet, a single day?