Musings on Mortality, Mindfulness, and Meaning

IMG_3334We’re all going to die. Today 50 people died in a plane crash in Russia. Most likely none of them expected to die today. They were idly anticipating a dreary airport and lost luggage — maybe a reunion with someone waiting below. And then something went terribly wrong.

We all secretly expect to go on living, to wake up again tomorrow. Maybe people whose bodies are closing down shake off that expectation in order to accept the inevitable. I’ve watched both of my parents face that moment, organs failing, drifting further and further from the selves they’d created. Mom got a reprieve, but Dad didn’t. Neither of them expected to get cancer in their fifties. And then something went terribly wrong.

Most people have probably seen friends and relatives die earlier than expected. I can’t say I was lucky to have the person closest to me (my grandmother) wither before my eyes and die of cancer when I was twelve years old, but it prepared me for a lot that would come later, in a way. I don’t know if anything can prepare you for certain tragedies, but getting that hard slap in the face early in life braced me for just how terrifying and fleeting and uncertain life can be.

I’ve watched friends go through cancer, dangerous surgeries, near-fatal accidents, and rare drug reactions. One good friend was beaten to death by teenagers for no reason (boredom). A co-worker from my first job went down in the Pacific Ocean in a plane crash along with his new fianceé. Someone I knew and liked — the mother of a brand new baby girl — spent months on a breathing machine before she died from aforementioned drug reaction.

Wow. this may be the most depressing blog post ever… It gets better, I promise!

Staring mortality in the face tends to trigger a quest for meaning. Being somewhat depressive and world weary, I used to tend toward the “there is no meaning” camp — when I was young. Now I look at meaning differently. It’s not a Big Question, and there is no big answer. There’s not something I’m supposed to do, nor is there any mandate that I accomplish Something Big before I die. Putting that kind of expectation on myself only leads to misery.

Meaning, for me, today, is this: I am alive right now. I am experiencing this singular moment with this singular consciousness in this living/ dying body. And that is enough. It’s more than enough. It’s amazing.

Meaning is connection, communication, love. Sometimes I feel disconnected and lonely. But I’m never really disconnected or alone. I can pick up a book (or send a text, or open a web browser, or walk to the neighborhood bar or — heaven forbid — make a phone call) and find instant connection. And love is always right here, if I pay attention. It doesn’t come from someone else in a one-way transaction… it flows through us, in all directions.

Ok. My secret inner hippie is showing now. My Mom had a much-highlighted copy of Be Here Now when I was a kid (probably still does), but it took me a few decades to catch on. Ten years ago — in my early thirties — I was just beginning to gain some self-confidence. It had taken me the previous decade to get over the trauma of all the Bad Things that had happened and the conviction that I was doomed. DOOMED.

But then more Bad Things happened. Parents with cancer. Divorce. Economic downturns and lost jobs (four times!). Dead pets (my ex and I had many pets… they all predictably died). Difficult relations with men. A totaled car. Poor decisions about drugs and alcohol and money. Debt.

I quit drinking for a while. I started doing more yoga and reading about Buddhism and brain chemistry. And I’ve started to Be Here Now a bit more. Slowly. And not always successfully.

My birthday is coming up next weekend. Forty-two. This doesn’t seem as old as it would have ten or twenty years ago, when youth seemed to have a hard stop at forty. That’s the world I grew up in. Women, especially, turned forty and were suddenly old ladies. Some of my closest friends are in their late forties/ early fifties. And they’re not old! I’m pretty comfortable with my age.

But birthdays in your forties are inevitably reminders that this life is probably halfway over, if all goes well. And all doesn’t usually go well. If I died today, I’d feel like I was unfinished (let’s just assume that I can both be dead and feel, for simplicity’s sake). I have things to do, things to learn, relationships to build, and Bad Things to shake off.

The inimitable Doris Lessing passed away at 94. She lived a life I would be proud to have lived (with maybe a slightly different hairdo). If I have the luck to live that long, will I be proud of the life I’ve lived? Mistakes were made, surely, but, at the end of the day, did I do good? Did I make something of value? Did I spread love and joy?

This kind of self-questioning is valuable, I think, in terms of course-correcting. It’s not very good for Being Here Now, though. Fretting about the future or mulling over the past are the paths to unhappiness. Those are some lofty expectations, and I’m just a flawed human. I’m smart and kind and competent and strong. But flawed.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably alive. You also have an amazing attention span. This is one long, dreary piece of writing. Thanks for reading.

So, you’re alive. Stop for a minute and just take that in. You probably have things you don’t like about your life, or yourself. I sure do. Maybe you’re in pain, or feeling fear or grief or anger or boredom or loneliness. Allow yourself to feel whatever, because you are alive, experiencing this moment that no one else will ever experience. And this moment is the only thing any of us has. And then its gone.

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” –#DorisLessing RIP

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