When I was 11 or so, I started to imagine the unimaginable. For a stretch of time, I would wake up every day contemplating my own death. Not the manner of it, or how old I would be when it happened, but the fact of it. It was a tension in my chest, a tightness in my breathing. My first thought in the morning was, “One day, I’m going to die.” I was raised in a liberal Catholic household, but I couldn’t feel any truth in stories of resurrection. What would it mean to no longer exist, to be without consciousness? It was a void that my mind couldn’t enter. As I started to go about my day — getting up, making my bed, brushing my teeth — these thoughts began to fade, my daily routine occupying my mind and focusing it in the present. But the next morning when I awoke, there it was, my first thought: “One day, I’m going to die.”
There wasn’t a moment when this morning ritual stopped; instead, it faded away. Over time, mundane thoughts of my daily routine once again became the first ones to enter my mind when I awoke. There have been several other periods of my life when death preoccupied me in this manner — one I remember especially well occurred during my freshman year of college. I felt like everyone around me was relishing the exuberance and freedom of being on their own while I was grappling with this crisis. But once again, these recurring thoughts faded from my mornings with time.
During the rest of my life, this fear of death has been a more sporadic, though frequent, visitor. On a regular basis, sometimes prompted by other thoughts in my head and sometimes seemingly unconnected, there the thought is again: “One day, I’m going to die.” Sometimes, the thought passes from my mind as quickly as it entered. I think about death, and then I consider what we should eat for dinner. Or I think about death, and then I envision where we could go on vacation.
Other times, these thoughts linger. When I dally on what the experience of death will be like for me — not the pain involved, but the movement from consciousness to lack thereof — I feel a sense of dread. Of course, by definition I won’t be conscious of my lack of consciousness. But contemplating that extinction of my own capacity to think, to feel — that fills me with terror. I cannot reckon with the paradox of ceasing to exist, and trying to wrestle with this idea leaves me feeling utterly alone. Perhaps this is the terror in its essence: this dread of death is, at its core, a fear of being finally and irredeemably alone, so alone that I have lost not only the companionship of this world, of all creatures in it, of all people, but so alone that I have lost even the companionship of myself.
I know that this fear of loneliness is not particular to white American culture, but something about it feels especially connected. In our modern American society, fueled by white cultural norms, we are particularly individualistic and mobile. We have a certain disregard for the needs of our vulnerable — including the very young and very old. The “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” mentality is deeply embedded in our collective psyche. For people like myself whose relationships to their families, friends, and communities are more tenuous than they were for our ancestors, and more tenuous that they are for people of other cultures in our own nation and around the world, it makes sense to me that all experiences, death included, would be colored by our collective sense of loneliness.
Perhaps this is why the one small comfort I experience in my contemplation is when I consider my death in relationship to other people. Someday I will no longer exist, but someone I know will exist beyond me. Since I don’t believe, or see any evidence, that I will continue to exist after death, my solace, like so many other people’s, must come from those who live beyond me. When I reckon with the totality of my life in the context of my relationships — with my wife, our daughter, the family and children she may have one day — I feel not dread, but an overwhelming sadness. Sadness may seem little better than dread, but in a way, I treasure this sadness. Sadness comes from knowledge of what I have that will be lost. Within it, sadness contains the seeds of love and joy, because we only mourn that which we have loved. Instead of dread, I prefer to focus on this sadness, containing within it the love and joy that are still alive today. It is a reminder about what I have now, what I must treasure now, and it feeds my small hope about what will not be lost, even once I die.
As a white, Catholic-raised agnostic, middle-aged man, to what consolation can I cling in the face of death? I can think of only a single slender thing: I hope that my being here made an impression on those around me; that my existence created a small ripple that, when refracted through and reflected off those whose lives it touched, shaped their lives and their beings in some way; that the ripples produced by my life have altered the beings of my students, of my colleagues, of my parents and sister, my nieces, my wife, our daughter, and that this signal is contained in the tenor of the ripples that they, in turn, transmit through this world.
Sometimes, in the face of my own eventual annihilation, this hope is no consolation at all. At these times, I can think only of the loss, at what I have that will be no more. But at other times, I look at this hope indirectly, from the side, out of the corner of my eye…and I can see and feel that this slender hope, the hope of tiny ripples in a seemingly limitless sea of existence, just might be the only hope I need.
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3 thoughts on “A slender hope”
I give death very little thought. It is life that dazzles me. I’ve been close to death; laid next to a dying mother and husband in their final hours. I choose to focus on life, and let death come when it may. My focus is on life: to see the beauty, and the good in every day. (Some days I have to look very hard.)
Most days life’s beauty overwhelms me: children laughing, a sunlit leaf, silver hair, a smile. You’re right to take solace in the hope of having touched people’s lives beyond the grave. I was deeply touched by my mother’s and husband’s lives, writing poems to release my grief and ponder life’s meaning. Here’s the one I wrote when my husband died:
I cannot wake the dead, although I wish I could.
I cannot make your eyes, remember all that’s good.
You lie in drugged repose. Your shoulders rise and fall.
For when you leave this earth, I’ll cry and weep, and call,
“My love’s not far away, he’s all, and all, and all…”
I need not wake the dead, he lives within my soul.
Your work, your focus in life, has been social justice. You will live on in people’s souls. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, “People may not remember what you say, but they will remember how you make them feel.”
You are making people feel “more than” instead of “less than”. Thank you, Ellen M.
Thank you for writing, Ellen. I appreciate you sharing your poem as well — it really speaks to me and my hopes for us living on in one another.