“[…] The sum of everything they’d ever said or done, every pain they’d inflicted, every joy they’d shared, would weigh less than the smallest feather on the wind.” –
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
Even if you believe in some sort of afterlife or reincarnation, most likely you have an understanding that once you die whatever you have achieved during your lifetime will cease to matter. Either you will frolic for eternity with angels (or be sodomized by demons, whichever you prefer) or after your last breath it’s gonna be lights out for infinity times two. The only scenario where this isn’t true is if you’re a Buddhist and believe in reincarnation, but if that’s the case then you’re excused from this conversation because everyone knows that Buddhists are good people searching for transcendence and don’t need my help in doing so.
We’re all going to be dead one day and our bodies will decompose and in the medium-term future after our deaths no one alive will remember us. For all intents and purposes, if you’re not breathing and all the people who are don’t think about you, you basically have ceased to exist and the memory of you has been wiped away from the earth. Are you freaking out yet? That’s a trick question, because actually, there’s nothing to be upset about.
Of course, no one says you have to be remembered anyways; I mention it only because we’ve become hyperactive five year old attention-seeking infants in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If no one likes your #nofilter picture of dinner or no one comments on the fascinating New York Times article you shared, you feel a bit phantasmal, as if people saw through you. Your perfectly-plated tuna tartare with cilantro garnish didn’t happen and neither did your profound thoughts on Tanzanian street music. The anxiety you feel when such a thing occurs is the same anxiety people have always carried with them, an unconscious dread of being forgotten or ceasing to have any meaning in the lives of others.
And this is why you need to stop looking at death and the black hole of absence it conveys in such a negative light. Nothing’s stopping you from doing just that, and living a life blanketed by a Cormac McCarthy-esque sense of nihilism and despair, but that’s no way to seize onto the tiny grain of sand in the Walmart-sized hourglass that represents your moment of fleeting consciousness in this Universe. Rather, the fact that you will die and you will fade from people’s memories should move you to seek out what makes you happiest.
Chances are that whatever it is that brings joy to you will also make you the best person that you can be, and that’s a win-win for everyone. In my past life I was stuck in a job I didn’t like and in an unfulfilling relationship. Long story short, she broke things off with me because I was a miserable shadow of the person who I am now, and not long after I bought a one way ticket to Europe, where I’ve been until the last week when I did it again and purchased a one way ticket to Morocco. The moral of the story is not that everyone needs to quit their jobs or break up with their significant others and start traveling; there are a lot of other people who espouse travel as a silver bullet for whatever ails you, but they’re thinking in very specific terms and fail to recognize the forest for the trees. Traveling makes them (and me!) extremely happy and satisfied with their lives, but different things make different people happy. What a grubby backpacker like myself has in common with, say, a lawyer who decides to operate a BBQ food truck or a college dropout who decides to become a painter is that we are pursuing happiness for its own sake. There is no justification needed other than that, and the simplest way to remind yourself of where your priorities should lie is to remember that one day you will stop breathing. You will not get to enjoy another beautiful sunset. You will not get to spend another holiday with the people you love. You will not get to wake up and savor another day of adventure on the road or another day of doing the work you have always wanted to do. In short, because you will die, you must live. Unless you’re a Buddhist, in which case I’ll see you in the next lifetime.
If this is your first time reading my blog, let me know in the comments section below! Wouldn’t it be awesome to see more cool places like this every time you opened your email? Following my blog is free, and I don’t believe in spam–click on the “Follow!” button up there on the right for updates on my travels and inspiration for the next time you go somewhere new!
8 thoughts on “You Will Die And It’s The Best Thing That Could Possibly Happen To You”
Well said. I can relate to this article in a couple of ways. First, that I quit my job and as you put it “pursu(e) happiness for its own sake”. Secondly, I relate to your view on life and death. Somehow I feel comforted by the fact that I won’t live on for eternity… That might get boring, even if I was living on a cloud with angels. Because we only have a certain amount of time in existence, is what makes it so precious. That’s why we have a duty to ourselves to make it as rich as possible. Taking my own camino starting Monday, so I do reserve the right to change my views…
Hey Andrew, sorry for taking so long to reply but hopefully you’ll read this before you start your journey. I’m not a big movie quote guy, but in “Dead Poets Society” Robin Williams tells his students to suck the marrow from life, and I wholeheartedly agree! Buen camino Andrew!
” most likely you have an understanding that once you die whatever you have achieved during your lifetime will cease to matter.” – nah, anyone with kids knows this is not true for them.
I agree that in the short term, having kids is one way to preserve your memory. And even grandchildren carry the memories of their grandparents–my late grandfather traveled extensively when he and my grandmother were younger, so in a way I’m following in his footsteps. But I never met my great-grandparents Stephen, so I can’t really carry the torch for them. Cosmically speaking, an entire family tree is as infinitesimally small as one generation alone. But I think you understand my point is not that we should mope about our cosmic insignificance, but rather take advantage of the moment when we’re here!
I don’t think my comment was quite explicit enough..
I was referring to the genes we pass on – indeed this aspect of us is the only thing worth thinking about, it is what the human race is about.
I might make an argument that as soon as our children are old enough to look after themselves (I leave it to you to decide when that might be), we have no real function and could pop off with no particular detriment to humanity.
If we put that particular argument to one side – What you seem to propose is to take the hedonist approach, me me me – what’s in it for me – perhaps ‘taking advantage’ is the root of society’s ills today. That time contemplating how much sun one can stand before getting sunburn might be better used to support those less fortunate – some charitable/volunteering work for children, disabled, old people, etc etc. would do more for your soul (if you believe in such things) than any amount of self indulgence.
(At what point does a rich man do more for humanity by dying, so his wealth is redistributed than being alilve and sitting on his wealth,doing nothing with it? – I guess it depends on what he does with his money.)
It’s easy to become a pointless wasted of space.
Just a thoughts ; )
You know Stephen, those thoughts are quite profound! I realize that there’s a fine line between pursuing that which makes you happy and being a selfish jerk. With the exception of psychopaths and people like Bernie Madoff, I do believe that we contribute the most good to society when we do what makes us happy. Being happy has an osmotic effect and rubs off on others–I think the biggest challenge is to be cognizant of whether or not we really are happy with ourselves, and if we have the courage to change our lives if we are not.
Carpe diem … 🙂