I was working on a different story this morning. But I just hit delete, because now I am haunted.
This story (trigger warning: cancer) showed up in my Facebook feed. It features a four-minute video that covers the life and death of a young woman. If you have the emotional space right now, I recommend you watch it.
And I watch that, and it seems that any piffle I could write this morning pales in comparison.
Because life is oh so fragile. And we don’t like to confront the fact that it is fragile. We busy ourselves with a million distractions to keep our thoughts away from the awful fact that every single one of us will die.
And life is so unpredictable. We don’t know when we will die. The young woman in the video had a couple of months’ notice. But some of us get no notice at all.
I look back on my life and see so many opportunities missed. Risks not taken. Chances squandered.
The party I skipped out on because I was too tired to go — the lost chance to spend a few precious moments with friends.
The date I didn’t ask for because I was sure I would be turned down — the missed possibility of friendship or romance.
The injustice I did not speak out against — the forgone opportunity to make the world a better place.
And, of course, I run the risk of wasting my hours and days and years looking back on a life of regret, rather than seizing the moment to better my life, to better the world, thus perpetuating the cycle.
So how do I make these few fleeting moments of life worthwhile? This is a question only I can answer for myself. But it must be answered — before it’s too late.
I can feel it coming on. Most years, it comes around the end of September. I fall into even poorer dietary habits than usual, and pizza, cereal, and ice cream become my mainstays. I have to push myself more to socialize. I run out of energy even if I feel like I’m in a good mood.
And there’s the trick. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that I can think I’m in a good mood when I’m not. I can be happy with some of the more peripheral things in my life–like school or chorus–but still have a deep-seated discontent.
And right now there’s plenty of reason for deep-seated discontent. It really all began a couple of months ago, when I turned 39. Now, I don’t buy into this silly game of being ashamed of how old you are. You should be proud to be a survivor. But, as my hair falls out more and my joints betray me more often and my metabolism disappears, I’m acutely aware that I am middle-aged, and that, unlike in my twenties, I cannot take anything about my future for granted.
It was right around my birthday that I got word that a friend of mine had died. We weren’t really close but we weren’t just nodding acquaintances either. Her death has haunted me these past two months. I don’t think I’m thinking about her any more often than I did before, but now I have to stop and remind myself that she is no longer alive. All the good things I’d hoped to see her do will never come to pass. My next time to see her in class or on the bus or what have you will never come.
All of this transpired not long after I had come to the realization that I am now an atheist. It was a long time coming. For most of my Christian experience I had grave doubts about the existence of God, but I could not express or explore those doubts because of the culture I found myself in. It all came about bit by bit. I left evangelicalism because I was expected to do the impossible and punished when I was unable to do so. I left Christianity when I realized that the narrative of Jesus didn’t make much sense. But the exit from theism was more gradual. When I identified as an agnostic, I explained that it wasn’t really that I wasn’t sure about the existence of God. It was more that there were days I believed there was a God and days that I didn’t. And as time wore on, the days I didn’t grew more common, when one day I realized that I couldn’t remember when exactly was the last day I believed in God.
So I’ve been adjusting to a new paradigm, which is never easy for anyone–even and especially if they tell you otherwise. And, as my thoughts, for all the reasons above, have drifted to the nature of mortality, I’ve had to understand what that looks like, in a very literal sense. In the past, I could picture what existence after death looked like. And that picture changed over time, but it was always there. Now, it is like a friend of mine who was born without eyes. The best that I can imagine what the world is like for him is that he sees nothing but black. But this is not the case at all. My friend sees nothing, and this is impossible for me to grasp. So it is now with death.
Now, this is not to say it’s an impossible concept. The majority of people can assent to the idea that the world existed before they became conscious of themselves and the world around them, that there was a time and place that there was no “me”. And of the remainder who do believe they existed before they were conceived, most will still state that there is no way for them to mentally access a perception of the world before their present existence. And so, I can conceive that existence after I die is just like existence before I was conceived (or was born, or became self-conscious, take your pick).
But just because I can conceptualize this idea, however abstractly, doesn’t mean it is at all comfortable. In fact, I find the whole affair depressing. And I’m learning to cope. And I’m arranging some therapy.
But this round of depression isn’t solely influenced by such morbidity. There is also the sorry state of American politics. Right now, the House of Representatives is quite willing to throw most of us under the truck because it best suits their own interests. And the lower you are in the socioeconomic pile, the more screwed you’re going to get. And I’m pretty low in the pile.
We’re facing a federal-government shutdown come October 1. Now, I remember going through a government shutdown once or twice in my life (I’m not bothering to Google for the dates). And the shutdowns were just for a few days, and the only thing you really noticed was that you didn’t get any mail for three or four days. Then Congress resolved their issues and it was back to business as usual. But the two parties (oh, don’t even get me started on the impracticality of a two-party system) are much further apart now than they were ten or fifteen years ago. I anticipate that this shutdown is going to last a long time. Even as it is, the current sequestration is seriously damaging the United States. Our research labs are having to lay off scientists. Wildfires rage as the fire service can’t provide adequate containment. Preschoolers have lost educational enrichment at a crucial point in their lives. And that’s just for starters.
I’m having to scramble, coming up with alternative plans for finishing my degree, for work and for housing. Twice I’ve had to leave my undergraduate studies because of financial issues outside my control, and I will not allow that to happen a third time. I tire of always scrambling, yet it’s almost all I’ve known.
And so comes the black dog (what Winston Churchill called depression), not because of some quirk in our orbit around the sun (for the record, I’m not diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, but with major depression), but because of factors outside my control.
Now I have to soldier on. I have to keep appointments and visit friends and keep up on chores and so many other things, regardless of how little energy I have, regardless of how much it physically hurts to do these things. Because if I don’t, I could fall into a deep vortex. I have been at the bottom of that vortex before, though it’s been awhile. I’ve worked really hard to stay out of it, and I will not allow myself to go there again.
Edited 17 Dec 13: I inadvertently attributed a quote of Winston Churchill to C.S. Lewis. My apologies for not double-checking.