Life in Death
The light changed from red to green above my broken body. I could still hear the tinkling of ice on the trees but all the sounds in the foreground were cast in a preternatural silence. Gone were the horns and screams of the intersection and all I knew was quiet. My vision began to tunnel around the green light swinging in a soft breeze. As my last breath freed itself from the depths of my lungs I felt a deep stillness gather around me. I was a wave ready to merge back into the depths of the sea.
My day had begun like any other: a quick cup of coffee, a short walk to the hospital, and surgical rounds on Smith 7. Half an hour of mentally fencing with my attending’s questions about cholecystitis and then I was off to see my own patients. Mr. Chaucer’s gallbladder had resigned itself to its new address in the pathology lab — a fact that Mr. Chaucer took great pleasure in. Mrs. Shelley had turned a corner and was getting her appetite back after her pancreas had taken her stomach hostage and demanded the small intestine for ransom. And Mr. Faulkner was placing his tray table and seatback in the upright and locked position in preparation for discharge today.
Lunch came and went while I finished the notes on my patients. It was only on my way to lecture that my stomach demanded recognition and I had to pull over at the snack bar. I inhaled a granola bar, chips, and a diet coke to quiet the rumbling in my belly.
When I arrived at the lecture hall I immediately realized my mistake of neglecting to read the assigned pages. The lecturer was a professor well known for picking students at random to quiz. It was like a reverse Price is Right gameshow: no one made eye contact with the host to avoid being picked as a contestant. Unfortunately for me, the only seats that were available were at the front of the class making me the target of the professor’s first question.
“Matthew, what is the preferred fluid to give a trauma victim in the field: a crystalloid or a colloid?”
Fortunately I had a fifty percent chance of guessing correctly, unfortunately… well that was also the unfortunate part.
“Colloid!” I said a little too eagerly, forgetting I wasn’t actually on the Price is Right.
My classmates winced as I realized my mistake too late to change my answer.
“No, that is not correct, care to try again?” said the professor smiling to the crowd. A few nervous laughs erupted like anxious sneezes.
“Alright, who wants to play next?” the professor said mercifully moving on.
I missed the rest of the show because I was busy rebuffing myself for not having the answer. So before I knew it the clock struck freedom, and we all scrambled for the exits.
The wind blew a cold hand through my hair as I exited the lecture hall and stepped onto the sidewalk. I was lost in the hundredth mental retelling of the colloid-crystalloid debacle as I arrived at the intersection. I absentmindedly stepped into the street and didn’t notice the ambulance speeding towards me. The last thought to cross the news feed of my frontal lobe read: “What an ironic way to go.”
Staring into the inevitability of our own death without the polarized lenses of denial can be profoundly intimidating. But it is just this unwavering gaze that can allow us to reap the benefits of fully knowing death while still alive.
What can we possibly gain from looking unflinchingly into the face of death? The short answer is we stand to gain a life. The longer answer entails some necessary discussion.
Our lives are built around the concept of an ever advancing Tomorrow. Our hopes and dreams exist Tomorrow. Our sense of self is maintained by projecting it into seemingly infinite Tomorrows. Our anxieties are the phantoms of feared Tomorrows. But where is this Tomorrow? The only time I ever find myself in is Today.
I happen to disagree with Freud: I think it’s expiration rather than copulation that drives the human organism. I would postulate that the concept of the amorphous Tomorrow has become so central in the West because it deals with the ultimate fear of death. When will we die: not Today, Tomorrow.
We can perpetually put off the thought of our death by banishing it into the ether of so many Tomorrows. This seems all well and good but there are problems in the land of Tomorrow that are not readily apparent at first blush.
If happiness exists Tomorrow, then we will never be happy Today. If worry exists Tomorrow, then we can’t resolve our worries Today. If our goals will be fulfilled Tomorrow, then we will forever be a day behind our dreams.
What about this little-examined world of Today?
What happens when we have a worry in the world of Today? In the world of Today we can address the worry and make the changes required to alleviate the anxiety. What happens when we’re unhappy Today? Without a Tomorrow we’re forced to discover what we need to be happy Today. What happens to our dreams in the world of Today? We are satisfied with the few steps we are able to take towards our dreams Today rather than hanging all our satisfaction on a future Tomorrow that will forever be just beyond our reach.
Ok so Today sounds pretty great; how do we get there?
To answer this question we must return to our friend, Death. Someday we’re going to run out of Tomorrows and all that we’ll be left with is Today. There’s no telling when this might happen. We are each but a drop of water on a very large faucet; we know not when our form will summate, separate us from the world we know, and deliver us back to the totality from which we emerged. We can utilize the uncertainty around the time of our death to eradicate the land of perpetual Tomorrows. If we really knew that we’d do the mortal coil shuffle tonight, then our experience of Today would be very different.
The muddy footprints of our son spoiling the brand new sofa would be easily forgiven, because in the world of Today, tracking the outdoors indoors is just what French bulldogs do and not worth getting upset over. The deadline haunting our Tomorrows would be forced to reckon with Today. And in that reckoning we would finish what we could Today and let go of any worry for Tomorrow. The necessity of planning for our future would be done Today and left there. Our minds would be free of the obsession over future Tomorrows, and we’d be satisfied with what we could accomplish Today.
If we can die to every Tomorrow, then we can live fully in the world of Today. Our frontal lobes have allowed us to create the land of Tomorrow. But within that same creative capacity there exists the power to appreciate the insecurity of our own mortality and return fully to the world of Today. Death sets the grand stage upon which the seemingly large problems of our Tomorrows are revealed to be the small matters of Today.
Death will inevitably set us free. It is we who determine whether this happens while we are still alive to appreciate the freedom.
No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.
— Euripides 480 – 406 BCE
Do every act of your life as if it were your last.
–Marcus Aurelius 04/26/121 – 03/17/180 CE
The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.
–Mark Twain 11/30/1835 – 04/21/1910 CE
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
— Mahatma Gandhi 10/02/1869 – 1/30/1948 CE