Later published in Topical Magazine (March 6th, 2019)
We all go through moments in life when life itself seems to have lost its flavor, its zest. Whether the moment in question comes when our alarm goes off in the morning and we wake up to the recurring realization that we hate our jobs, or whether the moment comes at a time of illness, or a bad breakup or divorce, or at a time of financial difficulty, sometimes we think— to steal a phrase from my Arkansan grandmother— that life in its entirety is, and will indefinitely be, “the pits”. Note, I am not talking about moments of extreme tragedy, but am instead talking about how we feel in the aftermath of minor tragedies or how we feel when we find ourselves stuck in ruts of repetition we don’t want to be in.
For most of us, when this feeling of existential drag occurs, we try to find ways of coping that are often ineffective: we shop till we drop, we overeat, we drink too much, or we move to a different place hoping that we won’t follow ourselves to our new destination. But if you are wanting your life to go from black-and-white to color again, I would submit that there is an easier, cheaper, and much more effective way to make that happen: Think more about your own death.
That radical piece of advice is probably something you don’t hear everyday, and in fact that advice might even sound like it runs contrary to the positivity-addicted conventional wisdom put forth by self-help books and motivational speakers. It would not even surprise me if what I’ve just said made you want to click off of this article and never read this website again, or at the very least set off some of your internal alarm bells as to whether or not I’m sane or if my outlook is healthy. But hear me out when I suggest that any moment of transcendence or awe or even basic happiness that we experience is tied, ultimately, to our own mortality and how we conceive of it. In short, reader, I suggest to you that there is beauty in the finite.
In James Patterson’s 2007 novel The Quickie, there’s a point in the story where the main character— a woman named Lauren— makes the statement: “I guess every life has at least one golden moment right? A period of time when the glory of the world and your place in it briefly and magically align.”
When I read that line, I found it to be such an elegant and wonderful phrase (and admittedly from a rather unusual source).
A period of time when the glory of the world and your place in it briefly and magically align.
The sense of wonderstruck reverence that we feel when we look up at a sky full of stars, for instance, stems from our knowledge that those stars have seen countless people before us return their gaze and will see countless people after us do the same. In other words, permanent things are beautiful because of our impermanence. If we were permanent too, then those same things would not be beautiful because the permanence that makes them so would then be ordinary. Permanent, or “timeless”, things intrigue and mystify us precisely because we are the opposite. Transcendence is only made possible when, like the Michelangelo painting, our mortal hands reach up in an attempt to feel— if only for a moment— the “hand” of things whose very natures transcend our insignificant anxieties.
This seems a fairly obvious point, and yet one of the astonishing things about us as human beings when it comes to the subject of death is how much energy we expend avoiding its sting. We make elaborate funeral arrangements as if we’ll be able to attend, we craft religious doctrines that extend existence beyond the day of our death, we regularly dust off old trophies from more triumphant days, and if all else fails, we may have children that we hope to live vicariously through and who we hope will carry on our name long after we are gone.
But I propose that the fact that we will die someday not only is something we shouldn’t avoid thinking about, but on the contrary is a fact that— when dwelt on frequently— adds flavor to our lives. By keeping the temporary nature of our lives always at the forefront of our thoughts, our everyday experiences take on new meaning and importance no matter how mundane. And that’s why I say there is beauty in the finite.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes: “A little while and you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will anything which you now behold exist, nor one of those who are now alive. Nature’s law is that all things change and turn, and pass away, so that in due order different things may come to be.” A lot of people, unfortunately, would find that passage upsetting. Conventional wisdom tells us that if we want to live happy and fulfilling lives then we shouldn’t think about death frequently because to do so is dismal and depressing. But Marcus Aurelius understood that it is precisely the inevitability of ceasing to exist that gives the existence we currently are experiencing such tremendous value and importance. He understood that there is beauty in the finite.
“Still,” you might say, “easier said than done.” After all, even if one does begin contemplating their mortality more frequently, and their day-to-day experience improves because of this, doing so still seems to be no guarantee that any other complicated aspects of life will improve dramatically. Take relationships and our dislike of loneliness for example. We almost cannot bear the emotional ups-and-downs that come with sharing our lives with another person, nor, ironically, can we bear to endure the different set of ups-and-downs that come with living life alone. And yet I would argue that even these anxieties can be overcome over time, if we make a mental habit of being comfortable with the idea of our own death.
In a 1993 interview published by the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the late David Foster Wallace made an interesting observation when he told Larry McCaffery: “You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self) has to do with angst about death, the recognition that ‘I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me’. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”
So what do we do when, in the words of James A. Lindsay, “The hymns of Heaven stop playing and can no longer drown out the corpse flies’ unendurable buzz”? We rejoice. Because without a definite, absolute, and unavoidable end to existence and experience, we cannot hope to adequately appreciate either.
We must, I submit, seek out and bask in the periods of time when the glory of the world and our place in it briefly and magically align. For some, this entails only minor alterations to one’s day-to-day: perhaps cooking a meal for one’s significant other once a week or taking one’s child to the park more often. For others, this entails making radical changes in life: perhaps quitting that terrible job or fulfilling one’s dream to climb the Himalayas. But only by living our lives against the backdrop of death can authenticity be discovered and our days be seized once again.
The painting above is La Fin Du Monde by the artist Gao Xingjian (2007)