Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On Anxiety and Eternity

For as long as I can remember, I've had little anxiety about death. I feel as though I came rather quickly into acceptance of death as inevitable (as Coetzee would say, as the very thing that defines being alive), and for the entirety of my adult life, I've lived with the conviction that the very most important thing about life is that the time that comprises your life is all you are given, and that in many respects you are responsible for how that time is spent.

At times, these two attitudes seem incongruous. Shouldn't the fact that one's time is so severely limited produce even greater anxiety? Wouldn't the fear of death become nearly overpowering when one realizes that at any time they may be wiped from this Earth, perhaps without having sampled as wide a range of experience as they had hoped? I feel as though such a reaction is missing the point. The point is not to pack one's life with a variety of experiences until it is bloated and exhaustive (or exhausting), but to find ways to appreciate those experiences we are privy to, and to always try to understand how the things that have happened to us shape who we are and how we will approach the things that have yet to happen. In many ways, this applies even to one's attitude about their impending death.

If the reasoning seems a little circular, it's because it probably is. Maybe that's why so many people struggle with death and the ways it seems intent on spoiling their plans. How do you break into that circle, the one that allows you to feel comfortable with your impermanence, and thus allows you to appreciate every day on which you wake again, to find good reason why its events serve as evidence that your impermanent state is precisely what makes your time alive so very meaningful and special?

Immortality is something men have yearned for since the beginning of their existence. Yet, how utterly meaningless would an infinite life be? How could you ever be satisfied (or disappointed or anything) with how you've spent your time when you essentially remove time from the equation? Even beyond this worldly existence, what good is sticking around for eternity? I've always been a little confounded with such religious approaches. What sort of exhausting, haunting reward is endless existence? People toss their whole lives away on want of some promised eternity. It is this that makes me anxious. The thought of never being proud of an accomplishment, of never being molded by an experience, of never sharing a limited, sacred bit of your own time with someone you care about. With an infinite amount of time, no accomplishment is noteworthy, no experience is limited and unique, and your time becomes the most meaningless of gifts.

Would I mind if I died tomorrow? Being alive, now, I would say "Yes." But tomorrow, should I die, I won't have any idea that it has happened, and cannot be upset by it. Would I be happy with the sum of my life at this point should it be suddenly cut short? Most certainly. Every day I find it a little bit easier to adhere to the principle of amor fati, though fate (and Nietzsche) really has little to do with it. But how do I begin to explain? I hope to live a long, storied and profound life. As I see it, worrying about just how long will only get in the way.

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