The topic has been on my mind for a while, although I’ve been dreading it. There are several reasons for that, but mostly I fear that turning the issue into an article will fail to do the people I’m going to write about justice.
Let’s start at the beginning. I only fairly recently learned that two people who used to be important to me — in very different ways — are no longer with us. One of them was my literature teacher of many years, and the other a girl I secretly had a crush on, without ever being close to her.
My usual reaction to death is a kind of speechlessness. It’s not that I don’t know what to say, but I feel like no words are appropriate for the totality of the event. A person — a living being with all the quirks, lovable features and darker traits, too — has simply ceased to exist. That person was there, and now he or she is gone.
Facing this abyss, I feel like every word is a cliché, a crutch to simplify what happened; to make it easier for us survivors to deal with the loss.
This is where this article should probably end. But then, I dreamed of my teacher again last night, and he was there so vividly, so alive that I woke up thinking I hadn’t remembered him so clearly in years. I’m positive he would forgive me, stammering out this article — he did teach me how to write, after all.
I can’t speak for the girl, but I hope she wouldn’t mind either.
After my initial speechlessness, my subsequent reaction to death is always the same. I look at my own life, at all the crazy things I care so much about (like the habit-building, for example), and I wonder what the hell I’m doing. Confronted with death, I feel like almost everything I do — be it my outlandish PhD thesis or rolling around with sweaty guys on the ground — is somehow out of touch with reality. All the value you place on certain things seems suddenly hollow.
The only thing that appears to be left is cherishing your human relationships while they are still there: your family, friends and those you care about. Completely rattled, you just want to go back to the safe haven you came from.
But you can’t live like this. You need to strike out; you need to leave your comfort zone, and you need to act like this is going to last forever. Occasionally, you need to jump on stage and roar out “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf, as my teacher was fond of doing. He was actually related to John Kay, their lead singer, and he did a damn fine impression of him.
So maybe it’s exactly the opposite of what death can teach us. Maybe we ought to learn to be crazy. Leave the expectations of others behind. Live on your own terms as much as possible.
Death Is Not a Lesson
I keep having one last notion about death, and in a sense it’s both the bleakest and the brightest one: maybe, unlike what I just said, there is simply nothing death can teach us; maybe that is just something we tell ourselves to get on with it. Death is not a lesson.
However, if that is true — if we refuse to marginalize death — then we can turn into the enemies of death. We can simply refuse to give in; we can refuse to treat it as a burden to be shouldered. Instead, we can scratch at it, spit in its face and deny its power over us, as long as we are there to fight it. I’m with Elias Canetti on this one: Death is a scandal. Never, ever, make peace with it.
In memory of Stephan and Nancy.