Begin at the End

Indonesia, 2012


Recently, a friend and former colleague passed away in his sleep, much to the surprise of all of us he left. He was young—in his early 40s. You could say there still was more to life at that age.

But life goes on. We amble forward.The inevitability of death shouldn’t be that surprising, when one thinks about it. At times it comes quietly; sometimes, violently.

My uncle fell off a cliff a few months after his wedding, his face crushed almost unrecognizably when they found him. At age fifteen, I saw my grandfather commit suicide, ending a long bout with depression. Just a few years before that, my grandmother passed away, in agony over a prolonged disease. My friend’s brother suffered an aneurysm—same age as I was. Another friend’s dad died while taking a shower.

Quickly, slowly. Today, tomorrow, one of these days.

It will happen to the best of us. And to the worst. Just give it time.

In death, we are all humbled as equals.

That sounds morbid, perhaps. We don’t talk about dying that much. It’s not polite to talk about death, and leaves many of us squirming in our seats. We’d like to believe we’d be spared of it, that we will be the exception rather than the rule.

But maybe we should talk about dying more.

In Bhutan, they say people try to think about dying every day, to remind themselves of their mortality, which supposedly helps with the appreciation of life.

Quoting a BBC article:

“In a 2007 study, University of Kentucky psychologists Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumesiter divided several dozen students into two groups. One group was told to think about a painful visit to the dentist while the other group was instructed to contemplate their own death. Both groups were then asked to complete stem words, such as ‘jo_’. The second group – the one that had been thinking about death – was far more likely to construct positive words, such as ‘joy’. This led the researchers to conclude that ‘death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts’.”

Contemplating about death is not the exclusive purview of Eastern culture. The concept of memento mori, after all, had became popular in the west during the Middle Ages, and has probably influenced many of today’s artworks (Damien Hirst’s bejeweled skull comes to mind.)

Not to be a curbside prophet proclaiming doom and destruction, but the start of the year has made me think about death more than the usual. The constant thought that my lifespan is but a mere speck in the history of the world (and the universe, too), challenged my priorities and perspectives. Specifically, how do I create something long-term, while at the same time, make the most of the short life I have? How can I ensure that my life brings the most meaning, while at the same time, not sacrifice the little pleasures of the now?

I will not lie. I wish for a world like San Junipero in “Black Mirror”, where we can live forever, even as altered forms of consciousness. I want to witness the changes in human history, and I feel that my lifespan is too short to witness crossing over the civilization types on the Kardashev scale. (A pretty exciting prospect to see, in my opinion.)  

Thinking about my limitedness has also made me consider how a lot of things we subscribe to are superfluous. I imagine the many things we strive for that we could perhaps do without: the eternal climb for social status, the walls we build to exclude, the desire to acquire more.

I remembered a dream I once sought: to experience the depth of what it means to be human—to the best of what I could do, and what I have.

Stepping outside of my introverted self, I took a chance and set up to meet some of my online friends, creating an opportunity to see them offline. It was an exercise in empathy, I believed: for me to withhold judgment, and listen to opinions that I might not exactly share, but might be worth considering. I enjoyed these moments of discussion, as it allowed me to see more views from various lenses, and to (perhaps) be reminded that, to paraphrase Desiderata, can discover certain truths in the  clear silence,  and there are stories waiting to be told and heard, by and from people we maybe once thought of as “dull” and “ignorant”.

When I die (or before I transcend into another kind of life, who knows), I want to look back and think that I have done more, that I have left the world a better place than I saw it. It scares me to think that I have not done enough. What is enough exactly, I could never know, but I want to reach a time when I could say that the life I had lived was not purely for myself.

In time, hopefully.

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