(The track that is currently playing is “The Perfect Kiss” by New Order)
On the way to work this morning, at the junction of the I-5 and I-8, I gazed at the orange-ringed sky and suddenly thought to myself, “I’m gonna die.”
Not that I was in any imminent danger. It was just the juxtaposition of the enduring beauty of sunrise with the fleeting pleasure of driving too fast, somehow reminding me of my mortality.
I have just watched “The Fountain”, which is a work of vision by Daron Aronofsky (whose resume includes “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi”) The layers of allusion and symbolism presented in this film have really worked their way into my brain, and have gotten the wheels spinning round and round. I think it would make an English major cream themself, and would certainly warrant at least a scholarly paper or two. And it isn’t the facile symbolism and self-conscious cleverness that M. Night Shymalan tends to exhibit in his work. This is the real deal, tapping in on the literature and philosophy of Western Civ, with a few bits of Mayan ethnography appropriated here and there.
The major theme that resonated with me was the need to accept the finiteness of human life, something that I am forced to confront every so often at work.
Despite what I do, and despite everything I try to avert the final end, there is a stark realization that Death is not a disease. It is a process in of itself, a necessary stage of Life. Without Death, there is no life, not because of some imagined law of conservation of symmetry, but because it is the way the multitude of processes that govern life itself work. Ultimately, we are doomed by the Laws of Thermodynamics, which governs the very molecules, the very electrons and photons, that make up the ultracomplex, multilayered process we call life.
There are probably at least a hundred thousand different chemical processes that occur in our bodies, some as simple as combustion—turning sugar and oxygen into water and carbon dioxide—and some as impenetrably complex as the assembly of intricate lattices and scaffolds that allow the replication of DNA and ultimately the generation of new cells. All chemical processes are beholden to the laws of physics, down to the quantum level, and ultimately, the laws of physics obey the principles of entropy. Entropy ever increases. Because of this, all things, all processes must come to an end.
There is a scene in the movie where Hugh Jackman’s character Thomas Creo says to himself, not grimly, but almost joyfully, “I’m gonna die,” and while this statement is simple and obvious, it also felt like an epiphany. It was enlightenment.
I’ve begun to believe that if we all began to understand, I mean truly understand, that we were all going to die someday, and that if we started living our lives without thought of a possible afterlife, maybe there wouldn’t be so many atrocities committed against each other, maybe we would actually start trying to coexist instead of trying to kill each other. Naiéve and idealistic, I know.
But at the same time, I can’t help ponder how people have warped the prospect of the afterlife into a cudgel to beat the unsuspecting into fearful obedience. Some people wield religion like a weapon, used to persecute and oppress others. (I suddenly think of John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards, not to mention the buffoons and ignoramuses who pass as ministers on the television these days. Pat Robertson, you twisted fuck, I’m calling you out.)
It’s a treadworn cliché: Life is precious. But people don’t seem to give a crap. Until it’s their life at stake.
While Death can often times be a messy, brutal process (although no more bloody or wrought than being born in the first place, and having witnessed both many times, maybe death is less chaotic than birth), I have perhaps had the fortunate opportunity to see people die with dignity. In peace. Not kicking and screaming, not writhing in agony or twisting in agitation, but with a sense of calm sanctity. We will send you off to the unknown, like the maidens who accompany King Arthur to Avalon. We are with you in those last moments, in that final silence when the mind knows no more, and the heart beats ever more slowly.
I suppose there is that. When you die at the hospital, at least you don’t die alone. I’d rather not die by myself sprawled face down on my bathroom floor, but I guess I don’t necessarily fear that outcome. But it would be nice to have someone at my bedside making sure I didn’t go out anxious or in pain.
One of my patients died today. It wasn’t unexpected. We knew early on that his prognosis was pretty poor. Maybe we didn’t think it would happen as fast as it did, although it still took several hours. I’m still learning how to comfort the still-living, though. That, too, is part of the process of Death. Maybe there isn’t always comfort to give. But we try.
Intellectually, I understand the necessity of Death. I understand that it isn’t pathological in of itself. But even at this late date, I still get the willies. Maybe less so than before.
But I still wish it didn’t have to happen. Even when what life there is is full of suffering and pain without the redemption of joy and triumph. But I suppose, mercifully in those circumstances, Death does happen.
I’m still twirling the idea over and over in my mind.
There are few ties that bind me to this mortal coil. While I know there are a handful of people out there who love me and would care if I keeled over, or if I offed myself, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something. Other than family and long-time friends, other than a sense of duty to my profession, and perhaps a pathological sense of curiosity that I haven’t yet managed to suppress, there’s a sense of emptiness. I’ve tried hedonism, I’ve tried distraction, I’ve even tried asceticism, and this hole still lingers. Perhaps nowhere near as painfully as before, but it’s still there. There is a void that my fragile paper-thin life seems to collapse upon.
I’ve given up on hoping that someone would magically fill this void for me. I know, deep down inside, that it’s up to me. If I never find the kind of love that I think is what I need, than I’ll have to do with the love that I do have. There are my parents. My brother and my sister. And hopefully some day, my nieces and my nephews. There are my dear friends, and a few new friends along the way. It’s something with which to fill the void with, even if only partially.
We don’t always get what we want, and perhaps fulfillment is ultimately a utopian fantasy of youth, something that I will perhaps gladly shed some day. Still, even still, it would be nice to have someone at my side on this long, slow journey to that finish line that I know awaits me somewhere down the road.
But like I said, I guess there’s always the hospital. At least I needn’t die alone.