Feeling alive in spite of it all
I think about death a lot. Not in a morbid, "I want to die" kind of way [important disclaimer: I am not suicidal]. I think about it in a curious, "I wonder what that would feel like?" kind of way. Maybe the same way people wonder what sex will be like for the first time, or how it feels to go skydiving.
It's interesting too, that these thoughts about (dreaded) death are coming more intensely and frequently than ever before in my life, at a time when I can definitively say I've never felt more alive. Being on my travelventure since May of last year has offered me more insight, emotion, passion and desire about everything--literally everything--than I could have ever imagined possible. So why do I keep thinking about all of it being over? To be clear: I don't wake up in the morning scared and thinking I'm going to die that day. That would be extraordinarily counterproductive to the point I'm trying to make here. But I do spend a lot of time at night before I go to sleep thinking about that (death) day, whenever it will arrive, and if once I get to "the other side" I'll feel like I've done everything I can to make this (one) life (in a million) the best it could possibly be. It's futile to think about it really, as an answer isn't going to arrive any sooner than the exact moment I'm actually dead. But I will argue (later) that thinking about it has a few benefits that strangely enough almost help to provide the answer we think we hope to receive someday. Kind of complicated isn't it? (You can stop stop reading now if you want to).
But this post does get a little more interesting.
About a week ago I went to visit The Catacombs in Paris, where hundreds of thousands of human remains are kept (you can read them and the history here, it's fascinating). Piles and piles and piles of human bones line the 2km underground walkway, a very keen reminder that our body and our life is absolutely temporary and will eventually end up discarded similarly to these bones. The skulls intermixed with all the arm and leg bones offered a starkly different but equally as powerful reminder that every bone of every body in there (and everywhere) has/(had?) a unique story all its own. It was strange, thinking about those two realities simultaneously.
There were thousands and thousands of skulls to see, but I remember being struck by one, unable to take my eyes off it. It was no different than the rest, but for some reason to me it was. The knowledge that this head once belonged to a breathing, talking, emotion-feeling human like myself, who probably--no, certainly--thought about death at least a couple of times before it actually happened to them, was overwhelming. I wondered if (s)he had a happy life or a sad one. Where they ate breakfast on Saturday mornings and what their favorite book was. I wondered what they had decided to do for a living, what their proudest accomplishment was, and what their family life was like. Then, obviously, I wondered how they died. I wondered if they let fearful thoughts of death keep them from actually living before then or if they were able to feel truly alive in spite of all of it.
Here are a few photos I took at the famous Pere Lechaise Cemetery in Paris that make death look...pretty:
Not long after The Catacombs in Paris I headed up to Brussels (which is awesome, by the way and where I currently sit). There is a pretty building (La Grande Place) in the Grand Market (picture below). Caught up in the extravagance and overwhelming nature of seeing a city for the first time, I didn't notice anything strange about any of the buildings in the Grand Market at first, but then my friend told me the story behind one of them; the architect, after committing his life to the creation of this building, saw after it's construction that it was lopsided and incorrect. (Look at the picture below again and you will surely see it). Upon recognition of his failure, he climbed to the top and jumped to his death. Just like that.
He ended it all so quickly over something that the entire world would very likely have forgiven him for. It was hardly the exciting "I wonder what life was like for this guy" story that was fun for me to think about while staring at the centuries old skull in The Catacombs. Instead it made me wonder what thoughts he had when he got to "the other side." Did he remember jumping? Did he regret it? Did he feel like his life had been worth it, despite what he believed to be an insurmountable failure of his life's work?
Most people would ask why anyone bothers to think about these things? But these questions are intriguing to me, because in the end we are going to be asking ourselves the same ones. It's easy (for me at least) to wonder and hypothesize about other people's life and death. But it can be so hard sometimes when it comes to our own: "once I'm not so busy with work I'll pick up that hobby," or "life is good enough I guess." And that's the nail in the coffin. Pun completely intended.
Naturally, because I've been thinking about death so much, I've been seeing it everywhere (or it could be vice-versa, who really knows). In the book I'm reading one of the main characters just committed suicide. La Grande Place and The Catacombs are very obvious examples. And there are things every day I can't remember off the top of my head maybe because there are too many of them.
But I hardly find these frequent reminders of our eventual and unavoidable expiration depressing or scary. In fact, its prevalence in my daily thoughts has lead me to an unexpectedly inspiring conclusion that when we start to realize death--or the opportunity of it--is around us at every moment, it ironically makes us very able to feel that we are alive.
It's hard for me to articulate. If I'm lucky you'll get my point...that maybe death doesn't need to be dreaded at all. Because dreading it is what keeps us from truly living in the first place.