Lately a hyper-awareness of my own mortality has brought with it a sense of the futility of all human endeavor. It may have started with reading this story in the New Yorker, which reminded me a lot of dreams I’ve had in which I’m about to die (usually via trauma): there’s an instant awareness that “this is it,” that “my time has come.” It doesn’t bring sadness, just resignation, a recognition of death’s inevitability.
It’s one thing to think about death and finitude as abstract properties that exist in the world, outside of one’s immediate experience: even when someone close to you dies, it happened to them, not you, extinguished their consciousness and put an end to their experiences. You’re still around to feel the agony of grief, to be irritated by your body’s continued demands in the face of consuming psychic suffering. The cliche of young people thinking themselves immortal has its basis in a profound truth: it can be really, really hard to wrap your head around the idea that you, like everyone else who has ever lived or will ever live (unless certain transhumanists get their way), will die.
But I’m starting to get it. My waking hours are shot through with the knowledge of my certain demise. What was once a highly theoretical proposition with zero emotional resonance has become a frequent refrain in my mind, popping up whenever I think of anything remotely long-term. Artistic achievement, for instance.
Talking with a friend last night, I realized that any desire I hold to gain recognition is simply a thinly cloaked bid for immortality. This probably seems obvious. But I had never really felt the truth of it on a deep level. Since everyone (and probably eventually everything) is going to die, what is the real point of trying to get approval and affirmation from others? I’m convinced that there isn’t one.
This may sound depressing. It’s not. Quite the contrary: the more I come to terms with these realizations, the freer I feel. Freer from the judgments of others and from my own judgment of myself, freer of the need to judge others. Freer to create things that are true to my heart and increase my understanding and amplify my joy and make me a more empathetic and honest person, rather than feeling constant pressure to create things that will bring me acclaim. Because when I try to make art with other people’s responses in mind, I don’t make art.
Similarly, the knowledge that, one day in the not-too-distant future, my body will be dust, is helping me to heal from a deeply distorted body image. I’m starting to relate to my body more as my own precious vessel, a miraculous thing of inestimable value that enables me to move through the world. That there exists visible fat on my body is starting to recede into irrelevance. Deciding when and what to eat is beginning to have more to do with when I’m hungry and what I want, rather than an anxiety-addled calculus that has little to do with my actual health. Instead of seeing it as a malleable, and ultimately perfectible, reflection of my worth as a person (when I achieve a coveted sculpted thin shape everyone will think I’m really great!), I recognize my body as the part of my self that enables me to experience the sensory pleasures of which I’m so fond, to do work that has meaning to me. And I have the great fortune of having a very strong and healthy body that also happens to look pretty good (for now).
I’m going to die. But I have pie!