Sleeps with butterflies

‘There was no party, there were no songs
‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started
No one has left here that knows his first name
And life barrels on like a runaway train
Where the passengers change
They don’t change anything
You get off; someone else can get on …’ – Ben Folds

I’ve been thinking a lot about death.

I know, it’s hardly the appropriate tidings for the season but it is what it is. Don’t get me wrong, I also in equal measure enjoy staring at our lovely Christmas tree and recently, watching ‘Love Actually’ as the token yuletide movie of the year. So it’s not like I am growing moldy sitting alone at home on a wing chair in the dark. But at the same time I have also been thinking about death, a lot. I see it even in songs that are really not about death (The Ben Folds song above is about someone being laid off).

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the precise moment when it happens and how that would feel like.

As a Christian, I’ve been conditioned since young to focus on what happens after that moment. The bright light, the rejoicing, the yellow brick road and Oz. Just kidding. Jokes aside, I do fundamentally believe in the moment after of course. You can’t exactly subscribe to only a portion of what you consider the truth. But it won’t stop me considering the flip-side to that which is just a big well, nothing. No big party. No bright lights. Just, nothing. The cliché often employed is that it’s like going to sleep but not waking up.

I must confess at certain points of my existence that has sounded somewhat, comforting. Lately it hasn’t been though. I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘nothing’ feels like.  Yes, it feels like nothing, of course.  But that just seems so stark, so brutal. That the amount of energy and force-of-will that it takes for us to go through life is just snuffed out in an instant and there is just, nothing.

If I am being honest it feels a little lonely. Not that you would be conscious of that when it happens because you are just in that big nothing, but that’s my sentiment on how the nothing would feel like.

In this age of almost unmitigated popular culture saturation, one can become a little desensitised about death and to be fair, for a long time, I was. But lately, I’ve been processing every death I read about or even see on screen. I consider what it would’ve felt like for them at the point of death and how it would’ve felt like if they had indeed stepped into the huge nothing. Even reading about people who have long gone sparks bouts of rumination. Like how I recently read about the making of Bowie’s 1971 record ‘Hunky Dory’ and I started thinking about how it’s been already four-years since he’s died and how he would never been experiencing new things anymore, new sounds and new words and everything with him has just come to a grinding halt. And this is a man who literally rewrote the rules of rock music. What more me, some random guy living in Kuchai Lama?

“Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” – from TV show The Good Place.

I write all this in the expectation that weeks from now, I won’t remember that I wrote a single one of these words. That like most existential crises, it just fades away to the background because something else just becomes louder. That quote from The Good Place sums it up nicely. That the very concept that our expiry clock starts on the day we are born should be enough to render us unwilling to do anything and just give up altogether. But humans are resilient and we just get on with it, by minimising this dark inevitability into the background of our lives and to just kick this bucket decades down the road and occupy ourselves with things that gives us meaning and happiness today. If you think about it, life is just a series of distraction tactics.

I am also cognisant of the fact that I appear to be writing all this rather atheistically. Like I personally believe there is just a huge nothing after we die. But that’s not what I believe. I believe there is something more awaiting us at the other side.

At least, there has to be.

This blue world

Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.’ – From ‘Walking’ by Henry David Thoreau

I’ve just finished Frank McCourt’s wonderfully snarky ‘Teacher Man’ In it, he referenced a lecture by American poet. philosopher and tax resister, Henry David Thoreau concerning the idea of just continually walking the earth, experiencing nature, without the need to double back to the start. The thought immediately intrigued me.

The thought that intrigued me was not about retreating back into nature, which forms a large portion of what he was trying to say. Not that I don’t like nature. I just like it with a little air-condition. Make what you wish of that statement. The thought that interested me was the idea of allowing ourselves so much freedom that we would not need to double back to anything. It’s never occurred to me until now that an important tenet of civilization is the need to close the loop. Exploration is encouraged but not unconditionally. Otherwise you’re just a vagabond. It would seem the term ‘explorer’ may be either somewhat elusive or entirely conditional (explore, but you have to return) in this modern age.

My wife’s dog comes to mind. How he is more often than not, intent on zipping out of the gate when it is opened. When he has intention to do so, he is completely single-minded and driven to accomplish his mission. He truly believes in that moment that freedom and doggie heaven awaits him beyond those steel bars. But yet when he does get out, he often never allows himself to get very far, or at least, far from the ‘familiar’. Namely, us. The trick to lure him back in is not to chase after him, because that just encourages him to run farther because the ‘familiar’ is just a few steps behind him as he makes haste. The trick to getting him back is to close the gate and to head back into the house. Counter-intuitive I know, but works like a charm every time. Because as he plays temporary explorer and glances back towards the porch, he sees no one familiar. No one beckoning him to return. It would seem freedom then quickly becomes overrated when weighed against the prospect of having nowhere to call home. Pretty soon he is at the gate, beckoning to be let back in.

I’ve never entertained the thought of just walking out and never doubling back. I’ve loved the thought of it, of not being bound by the expectations of society and my social connections. When I decided against the concept of God years back, I inserted myself unknowingly into a vast plot of free land. I have up to that point labored under the expectations of religion, family and relationships and have mostly reciprocated accordingly to all of them. But suddenly I found myself completely free of all those expectations. Barring disease and social norms, I could’ve booked myself an escort for a good night and it would’ve fit somewhere within my acceptable moral compass at the time. I could’ve gone out and drunk myself into a fool and come home to my bed, without much condemnation from myself, and little from the people around me. But yet I did none of those things. I continued to go about my life like I still had those initial expectations placed upon me. Why?

Perhaps like my wife’s dog, I have grown accustomed so much to the familiar that absolute freedom no longer seems as appealing. I no longer need actual freedom, but just a notion of it, a whiff of it once in a while, and I can be contented. Perhaps I am indeed wedded to the breast of society. But just entertaining the thought of dropping all my routines, lifestyles and expectations, opening the door, heading out and never coming back still causes my heart to do a little skip. I don’t know where that skip comes from. Perhaps it’s the little explorer in all of us. The based nature that civilization has gradually built on and snuffed out. Perhaps it is a thought that appeals to all of us at a very, very fundamental level.

But if personal history has told me anything, it is that if I was indeed offered an opportunity to walk, I would most probably chicken out anyway.