Thursday, June 12, 2008

Being Mortal

I recently got hit by a blinding flash of the obvious (my eyes still hurt). Turns out that real life is nothing like the movies. (Bet your eyes are hurting now too!) See in the movies, when someone is confronted by the realization that his life might end, it always leads to some very interesting behavior (not to mention good cinema!) in that person. They take up extreme sports, they finally stand up to their mean boss, they finally realize the love of their life has been right in front of them the entire time (only now it may be too late to do anything about it - oh no!). All of these things make interesting movies and sure it seems like it’s realistic. These seem to be the things you think you will do if you find out you may be dying. But its not. At least it wasn’t for me.

Now first of all, let me scale back the drama factor a little. I don't want to make it sound like I was diagnosed with some dreadful terminal illness. No, in my case, a piece of my thyroid had started to enlarge to the point where it was threatening to close off my arteries, effectively giving me a stroke. Also because of the size and location of the swelling there were certain risks with the surgery I needed. And, while it did end up being cancer, according to the doctor, if you have to choose a type of cancer to get, you want the type I got - it grows slowly, its spreads very slowly and at this point it looks like nothing else got infected. Like I said, not terribly dramatic news, but it’s hardly what anyone expects to hear at age 30. Really, I was planning to leave the whole “facing my own mortality” thing for at least another decade or two. But alas, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and so there I was, forced to face my own mortality years ahead of schedule. All in all it was a surprisingly pleasant experience!

Now luckily, I left my emo/goth phase behind many, many moons ago. So mercifully no time was spent visualizing my funeral or wondering if anyone would really miss me or what song would play at my funeral or anything as melodramatically juvenile as all that. In fact, I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t really planning on dying at all! I'm still not! Don’t believe me? Check my 5 year plan, its right there in black and white: “Don’t die”. In fact, those two words comprise the entirety of my 5 year plan. (To be honest that’s my entire 10 year plan as well…)

Still, even though I have no plans to actually die, it’s never easy to hear that there is a chance (even a remote one) that you may not see your 31st birthday. It’s the kind of thing that makes you take a good hard look at your life. But here is where real life deviated from the movie version for me – instead of being horribly disappointed at my life I found myself rather pleasantly surprised by it!

First of all, I have no crippling regrets. Sure, if I could do it all again there are things I would do differently, but that is really a moot point, isn't it? No one gets to do it over again, this life is all we get and I like to think that I have done the best I could with what I had. Well, most of the time. I believe that there are two broad categories in life, things that happen to you and things that happen because of you. Of the two you really only have a say in the latter, the former you just have to deal with as best you can. And I have. I have made a great many mistakes, there are a lot of things that in hindsight could have been handled better but then again, that’s why they call it “hindsight”. I have learned from my mistakes, I have dealt with my tragedies and I have taken responsibility for my own life and my own actions. I have made decisions, I have suffered consequences and my only hope is that I have gained at least some wisdom from it. I realized that whoever said “we regret more the things we didn’t do than the things we did” clearly needed to get out more since my biggest regrets are most certainly NOT the things I didn't do. Having said that, I have no crushing regrets that weigh me down, I have learned from my mistakes. I have done my best not to keep any grudges and so I have forgiven myself and others and I have always tried to keep moving forward and I blame no one - not fate, not God, not myself, not anyone. When things happen to you, they happen to you. I try not to harbor any illusions about myself, my mistakes were mostly honest ones and I would rather keep them than try to erase them as they made me what I am. In the words of the poet, “Give me reason but don't give me choice. 'Cause I'll just make the same mistake again.” No point in lying to myself (or to you), even if I could go back, things wouldn't turn out that different - I am what I am. While I still do a lot of stupid things I like to believe that at least they aren’t as spectacularly stupid as they used to be.

I’m glad I ate well, I’m glad I tasted the good beer and the fine wines and the proper whiskey, I am happy to say that I indulged in the good things of this world. I take it all as a blessing from the Creator and I am grateful for it all. The world is so amazing and I have spent my years enjoying it as much as I could and I don't regret a moment of it. Chances are that if it was delicious I have tried to taste it, if it was beautiful I have tried to see it, if it was comfortable I have tried reclining in it and if it was interesting I have tried to understand it. I also certainly don’t regret a moment of rest or sleep, one of life's great and underrated blessings. Sure, they say “sleep when you’re dead” but that may be complete and utter bullshit!! For all we know you may never sleep again after dying! All of this may not have made me the world's most productive or industrious person, but I sure had a lot of fun and I certainly regret none of it!

Secondly, I have no unexpressed love. Everyone who matters to me knows it, I have made no secret of it. If you matter to me, you know it. While love, relationship and family may be areas of my life featuring some rather spectacular disasters I am happy to be able to say that I have not closed off my heart because of it. I have never stopped loving people. (Even though I’m not always sure I actually like people. ) While the food and the fun and the beer and the beauty of this life has been great, I have found that nothing matters like people. It is the people in my life who have made living it worth the while. Everything else was just icing. My friends mean the world to me and if they don’t know that they really haven’t been paying attention.

Best thing of all was when I looked inside myself I didn’t find fear. Especially not of death. Don’t get me wrong, I would hate to go now. Words could not express how much dying now would have annoyed me! But I’m not afraid. In death I hope to find a God who is as great, as loving, as kind and as forgiving as I had dared to hope and more. I hope to not find the immature, sometimes petty and cruel God of my fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters. Rather I hope that the God I meet would understand why I chose asking the hard questions over swallowing the easy answers, why I needed to understand and why it was sometimes hard for me to simply believe. May He be Great enough to overshadow and forgive my many doubts, questions, flaws and failings. Also, I really hope we got that part about it being OK to eat pork now right because I have had a LOT of pork in my life! I mean seriously, like at least twice my own bodyweight! If the Torah dietary rules are actually still in effect I am in SUCH trouble!

Now jokes aside, all of this talk of dying may seem unnecessarily morbid, but it’s not, far from it. I think we have a very human tendency to forget that our time on this planet is finite, one time only affair. It is so easy to forget that for a brief, bright moment in time you get to walk this world. In this brief sliver of eternity you have the immense privilege of giving it your best (and only) shot. Now personally, I think forgetting this for large amounts of time is probably healthy, but so is remembering it every now and again. It took some bad news from the doctor for me to realize this, but really that shouldn’t have been the case. After all, who amongst us wakes up with an absolute guarantee that they will return to bed that night safe and alive? Our time here may end at any time, any time at all and there is little to nothing we can do about that. Death is one of those things that fall in the “happens to you” category, you don’t really get to have a say in the matter. So once in a while, why not take a moment and consider your mortality? It may not be as depressing as you think, in fact you may find yourself pleasantly surprised!

Of course it doesn't mean I just patted myself on the back for doing so swell in life, it also gave me a chance to reflect on areas that need improvement and believe me, I have found quite a few. I was honest before, I really am happy with my life and the way it turned out in many respects, but I don’t think I can stay happy with it if I leave it as it is. There is still so much left undone, so much to learn, so much growing to do. So much growing up to do. As I said in my previous post, I started to recognize that there are some serious deficiencies in my existence and these need to be worked on, especially the way have have started becoming disconnected from family and community. That is certainly something I plan on changing. However, I don’t mean this in a movie style “oh I just realized my own mortality, now all of a sudden I must do everything different” kind of way. That kind of change is both unrealistic and unsustainable. Besides, this isn't a movie, it's my life. Real change takes time. At least now I have a direction in mind. It may not make good cinema, but I'm looking forward to seeing it nonetheless!

(Click to enlarge. From:


TPluckyT said...

The ability to truly enjoy life is something I admire, envy, and crave for myself . . .

The video made me smile in the midst of my self-absorbed patheticness . . . Thanks!

(Yes, I do realize if I weren't so self absorbed I might enjoy life more . . . I'm trying . . .)

RandomSue said...

Thanks for this Eugene. It's a good reminder.
For me, I feel this sense of how short time here really is when I look at how fast my children are growing up.
It's a little stressful at times because I can't help but wonder how many ways I am swrewing them up. It seems like God hands you this perfect little canvas and then says "good luck with all that." I know that's not really true. It just feels that way some times.

Eugene said...

Tim - That video is one of my all time favourites, it never fails to cheer me up. Besides, there is just something about Stephen Hawking singing "Boom-de-yada" that makes my own problems seem smaller.

Sue - don't be so hard on yourself. I mean God was the perfect parent and look how HIS children turned out!

For that matter I think both of you are too hard on yourselves. I've read your blogs, clearly you both enjoy life and all it's absurd wonder just fine!

Weaver said...

Hey, really interesting note. Hope you're feeling better now. As morbid as it may be, I think it's always good to stare mortality in the face. As a (regretfully) recently dead comedic genius said "The meaning of life is not to die." But coversely, the only purpose of life is to end. This frail little moment that we have, all it's waiting to do is finish, so it's good that you don't take it for granted, and it's damn sure good that you've had a good time!