On Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton asks the question, “If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say when you come to the pearly gates?” Not that Lipton will ever interview me, but if he did I have my answer all prepped – I’ve always hoped God will smirk and be like, “That was interesting.”
Of all the things I don’t take seriously, death should probably not be one of them. But here we are.
I think about death probably a little too often. I’m not sure when this started. It may have something to do with wanting to be an assassin when I was little. I also know that my “storylines” when we played as children often ended in my death(s). Then there’s that recurring drowning dream I used to have where I would wake up choking. I like mythologies about the undead and have enjoyed playing with the weight of immortality in my own fiction. I really don’t know what the appeal (if that’s the right word) is, but I know that I’ve never been afraid of being dead. This may be overconfidence that, when I wake up in whatever life is to come, God’s going to be happy with me and/or I’m not going to be reincarnated as a cow. It may be that I have an unnatural detachment problem and am a little too curious about whatever comes when I’m gone from here. But whatever the reason, I’m not afraid of Death.
Don’t get me wrong – I think dying is terrible and agony is terrible and the pain it causes everyone involved is terrible. I hate loss, grief, sorrow, sickness, despair. When I see people cry, I cry (a reaction recently developed, as apparently my soul grew back or something, har, har). Funerals, saying a final goodbye – all of that is awful. It is the most painful thing to release someone from their life, our lives, and everything Known. Suffering comes in some way with every death, and that, if nothing else, is a curse that touches us all. I DO absolutely hate other people’s deaths. I become semi-dysfunctional whenever someone I love dies. I even have an odd reaction of anxiety whenever someone has an accident or goes ill or something – I become incredibly creative. I don’t know why. When I am anxious about someone else’s life or death, I go to a place in my head where I can’t stop myself from painting, or writing, or whatever. It’s odd, I know, but for some reason that is my coping mechanism.
Sidenote: I first noticed this uber-anxiety about others’ deaths when my great grandmother started fading. I was a teenager. Since great grandma lived alone (and there’s a wonderful story about her shooting a gun in her house to get the squirrels in the wall, btw), towards the end each member of the family took turns staying with her at night. This usually meant my mom, my aunt, or my older cousins, but for some reason one night my mom made me do it. Alone, with a person who could potentially die any minute, I don’t think I slept all night. It freaked me out. When I finally got to go home, I remember sequestering myself in my room and writing for hours.
Anyway, while death is bad, I personally am okay with it, if that makes sense. I accept that, at some point, I am going to die. I don’t see the point in being afraid or taking it too seriously, letting it haunt this life. It’s GOING to happen. I don’t want to die of a long drawn out illness, a painful demise, or go screaming in flames or anything. I certainly don’t want to leave behind my loved ones or have my life end before I’ve done and seen all I can. But I find death a little bit fascinating. It is the ultimate Unknown. Death is the one thing that happens to us all that none of us can ever know about until it happens to us personally. It’s the one thing we all have in common. It’s what makes this life all the sweeter, because we know it’s going to end. Death happens, and by searching to understand it as much as possible, I think we take as much of the sting away as we can.
My own faith and belief system obviously comes into play here. That’s probably a big part of why I’m not afraid and have a kind of peaceful relationship with the idea of death. It probably also explains some of my fascination with whatever comes next. But the interesting thing to me of late – in this past season of Halloween especially – is that I’m clearly not alone in this curiosity about the afterlife. I’ve been reading a LOT of zombie fiction lately, and everywhere you look these days there are books, movies, TV shows, etc. about what life would be like in a post-apocalyptic world. (Don’t get me started on vampire fiction.) We seem really fascinated by the idea of The End and what comes after. The thing that keeps standing out to me is that we are oddly drawn to the horror of death and kind of romanticize it. I’m sure this says something about our culture at the moment, and that’s probably enough for a whole other blog post, so I’ll let it go for now.
I’m not saying that we should revel in the idea of death or have a blasé attitude about it. I do think it is important to prepare for whatever you believe happens at death. But I don’t think we should fear death or getting old – THERE’S definitely another possible blog topic – to the point that we let fear of the Unknown infect our daily, walking life. Whatever your belief system, how you live in THIS life matters. There is plenty to fear and worry about now. There is plenty to make sure you get right now. There are other, much more manageable fears to focus on and try to heal.
I know what makes me sad.
I know what makes me hurt.
I know what makes me unhealthy.
I know what makes me guilty.
I know what makes me regret.
THESE are things to fear to the point of doing something about them, if that makes sense. These are things we have a shot of doing something about. We’re all going to die – you can’t control that. What you can control is how you live in this life. The better you manage this life, I think the easier the idea of death becomes.
So, yeah. Death happens. But I guess the point is what we do before it hits us. Suffering happens. But I guess the point is how we react to it. For me, I really do hope I can continue to see death as something that should make me appreciate life and joy all the more, death as the ultimate Unknown that reminds me to instead focus on those things I can control.