On workdays I wake up at 6:30 in the morning, my mind a dull jumble of impressions. I never think, “I lived through another night.” (Dying in one’s sleep is often praised as the ideal way to leave this world, but I have my doubts. What if I were to wake up Elsewhere, and suffer an everlasting fit of anxiety: “Oh no, I left the coffee maker on.”)
By the time I start my 15-minute commute, I’m awake, my brain is buzzing with ideas, but these are focused totally on work or on books I happen to be reading. I never think, “I’m one flat tire away from extinction.” An accident passed on the road is an annoyance rather than warning.
A few days ago, after I had been at the office for a couple of hours, someone told me a fellow-worker had been run over in the garage where I park. He died. That was the news. The dead man was younger than me — a condition occurring to an ever-larger swath of the world’s population. He had awakened early, as I had. He had commuted to work like me.
Now he was dead. He had left behind an inbox full of unfinished business. Also a wife and children: an unfinished life.
When told about it, I felt horrified — a foolish reaction. My life has been blissfully spared many losses, but I know history. In every period but the last two generations, death has been a hovering, intimate presence, like a friend.
Read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. At 44, Salmon Chase had lost three wives and two daughters. Lincoln himself lost his mother, sister, and sweetheart by the time he was 26. Read the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. He ran away from Florence when a young teenager, and returned a few years later to find his entire family wiped out by the plague. These men loved as powerfully as we do today. Their losses were wounds that never healed.
That my co-worker had died before his time seemed unnatural, almost unjust, to me. I could still send an email to him on the network, and not get an out of office message back. He was there, but he was gone. People spoke of him in the present tense, but he existed only in the past.
The poor man should have lived to see his children grow up, as I have. But on what grounds did I make that demand? What is the span of a life? Who is the judge to whom we can appeal?
Since then I have wondered: why him, and not me?
I have said before that the purpose of morality, from a certain perspective, is to teach us how to die. But I don’t wish to moralize here. I only offer my perplexity about the human condition, which is so transient, so ephemeral. So brief. If I live to a hundred, I’ll still be like one of those soap bubbles kids blow into the air: bright, light, gone.
Why don’t I worry much about it? That seems foolish too — but maybe not. The flavor of life would turn bitter with constant fear and anticipation of the end. My son the proto-economist tells me that value is defined in terms of scarcity, and the value of life, its dramatic significance, flows from its brevity. A play that went on forever would be a painful bore. No danger of that, when it comes to human life.
I spend the workweek using my skills to earn a living. I use my free time to enjoy my family and indulge in a number of pleasant pursuits. Is this a form of blindness? If someone were to tell me, “You will follow your friend at work to that undiscovered kingdom — tomorrow”, would I do anything differently?
We cling to our habits because they impose order on chaos, a theme on our contradictory thoughts and desires, and a chosen direction, an inching toward some ideal, on a pilgrim body that will never attain much beyond hope and doubt before returning to dust.
Everyday life transcends the fear of anihilation. My 6:30 a.m. alarm and 15-minute commute conquer, in an illogical but satisfying way, an eternity of death.
My co-worker, they said, had died in a “true accident.” By that they meant no one was to blame. But the phrase was ill chosen, I think. Our species came to life and self-awareness in an irrational universe, perplexing to our feeble human reason. Most of this space is emptiness; of the rest, the dead and inert vastly outnumber the quick and awake. Life, from this perspective, is a lucky accident — for which those of us on whom it has been bestowed should feel thankful, while our brief candle still burns.