I’m going to die one day. I’m relatively certain you’re going to as well. There’s worse things I guess; just don’t ask me what. I’m not a philosopher, and you don’t have to examine my writing closely to see that every other word I write doesn’t end in “-ology” or “-ogical,” so I’m probably underqualified to ramble on about life and death. On the other hand, death is almost certainly going to be a “lived experience” for me, so I might have some authority on the subject. I was given some advice about the inevitability of death recently, so I might as well have a little fun. Pass (it) on, so to speak.
I found myself just standing in a greenhouse, soaking in the beauty around me, wondering whether The Miscellany News office would look less like purgatory if it featured a fern or a nice large hanging plant. Out of the blue, the shopkeeper offered some wisdom that probably only comes from being around fading beauty— the wilting flowers, dying plants, the indelible fragility of nurturing life—for long periods of time: “Don’t take [yourself] too seriously. You’re going to die one day.”
As much as I don’t like being reminded of the mortality of someone I actually like, the shopkeeper is dead right. I’m not going to pretend to know enough about nihilism to cite Nietzsche (I have enough trouble just spelling it) or have any great insights about life as a mortal, but there is great comfort in the idea of your own death, of finality. The late-night comedian Conan O’Brien—who’s actually remarkably well-educated and graduated from Harvard University magna cum laude—recalled a conversation with Albert Brooks where Brooks said, “In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” (New York Times, “Conan O’Brien Wants to Scare Himself With the New, Shorter ‘Conan,’” 01.14.2019). I think about that quote a lot. It makes you think about what’s actually important. Is it personal or organizational success? Do you want to be the best? Are you driven by the envy of others? All motives are fine if that’s what you want to do, but don’t do anything just because you think you’ll be remembered for it.
What you should take away from that quote isn’t that nothing we do matters. Instead, understand that if nothing you do will be remembered in the long run, you should try to do the right thing in each and every moment. If you promised to do something, you should do it. Not because it matters but because nothing else matters either. Maybe it’s because I’m poor and not exceptionally successful, but all I have is my word, and if I don’t have that, then I have nothing left at all. If you have no reason to do wrong, if you have nothing to gain because you’re going to die and nothing matters, why not just do the right thing?
I honestly think Vassar would be a better place if more people thought this way. Forget about your legacy, what you’ll leave behind. Help some people, bite off more than you can chew, make mistakes and try again. Live life to the fullest because this life might be all you get. Stop worrying that you’ll look silly or if someone will think you’re unserious. Listen: You can still be successful, competent and reliable without taking yourself too seriously. You can still be a good student even while realizing that it’s absurd that you’re trading pieces of paper (tuition) that you don’t have (student debt) for words (lectures) from people who write fan fiction about the gay brother of a Russian émigré. This is a real thing that happens, and it’s hilarious on so many different levels. If you can’t be a little un-serious, a little silly, you’re wasting the humor that surrounds us all the time. You’re wasting your own life, and do you have a resource any more precious? I certainly don’t.
This isn’t the only reaction that you can have to the news that you’ll die. You could also go down the route of burning, looting and pillaging, being evil for evil’s sake. That’s a reaction, I will admit, but I hardly think that’s a good way to go about things. For one, it’s not universally applicable. Screwing over everybody else to get ahead might work in the short run, but I can’t advise you to do that because then it’s just detrimental to everybody. Closing the elevator door on somebody can really give you a strong feeling of satisfaction, but if we all start to do that, then everybody is now taking solo elevator rides and everybody’s waiting longer too. The whole thing backfires.
So again, to bring it back to the beginning: I’m going to die one day. So for now, I’m going to enjoy time with people who are important to me. I’m going to lie in the sun listening to “Eight Days a Week” because in the long run, nothing really matters. There’s no reason not to sit back and relax, or even not to try, and I’m only going to get older.