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Life, Death, and Me

It’s sobering to know that a plastic straw will inhabit the earth much longer than I will. Having said that, it’s really not my problem.

The other night sitting in a Thai restaurant a short walk from my home, I told my wife that my coming death is changing my perspective on things small and large. No, I have not been told by my doctor that I have only months to live. In fact, I’m in relatively good health, putting aside that my blood sugar is a bit high and I can’t eat donuts anymore. My comment was based on nothing more than my age and the actuary tables that tell me I don’t have all that many years left on this blue-green planet. Of course, I’m hoping to beat the odds as everyone does, but I definitely am in my third act with no encore anticipated.

So, I read about the alarming rate of ice melting into the seas at both the earth’s polls and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I read that the ocean is filled with plastic, that animals are eating our shit and dying, that plastic is my drinking water, that plastic is overwhelming us, and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I ponder the possibility that the United States is moving towards fascism through the will of the people, election by election, and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I read that human civilization may collapse in fifty years followed by the possible extinction of the species (along with millions of other species!), and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I worry about another financial crisis and how it will impact my long term prospects, and I remind myself, it really won’t be my problem because I don’t have long term prospects. I find myself hoping that the great Pacific Northwest earthquake holds off until I catch up with the actuary tables. I stood looking at our new all electric car and realized that the odds are I will never have to buy another car. Well, I could go on, but my point…

First, the “it’s really not my problem” phrase is not as individualistic, selfish, insensitive, indifferent, hardened, callous, unsympathetic, thick-skinned as it sounds. In fact, I find reading the news a depressing and disheartening exercise each morning. To read the news is to acknowledge your one complicity and guilt and to, in at least a psychological, spiritual sense carry the burdens of children dying in war to whales dying at sea. I have for the first time in my adult life contemplating stopping—no more news at all. I’m aware that every day, though I take small steps like electric cars, avoiding plastic packaging as much as possible, recycling, paying extra for cleaner energy, voting, writing, supporting, etc., that much of what I do contributes to the seemingly inevitable collapse, the death of individual animals and the extinction of species, the polluting of this blue-green planet, the oppression of peoples. I’m aware that every morning when I take my first conscious breath I have compromised myself, that I live in a world from which there is no ethical, practical escape. What I mean by “it’s really not my problem” is simply that I will be dead and therefore will cease to be part of the problem and the solution. My death means irrefutably that life, the universe and everything will not be my problem. This stone cold obvious fact does not, however, move me to withdraw from the world.

Second, knowing that I will not be around for the future casts a different light on that future. Sadly, the future does not belong to me. It is not something I anticipate. It is not something that will impact me adversely. It is not something that will harm me. I will not suffer because of it. Also, I will not benefit, be lifted, be moved, be encouraged, by it. I will not be in the future to love, to take heart, to do the right thing, to support others, to build, to create, to sleep peacefully. The future is a land I will never visit and thus it is something very different from the immediacy of tomorrow.

The fact that the future, with all its nightmares and beauties, will never be my home is both a sorrow and a relief. It saddens me that I will leave my wife and friends. It saddens me that I will not be here when we discover life on another planet or moon. It saddens me that I will never hear music, laugh, be brought to tears by beauty, become excited by medical, technological, scientific, breakthroughs again. It saddens me that I will never read a good book again or watch a great film. It saddens me that I will not be here for moments of great justice, political victories, and fundamental positive changes.

I am relieved that I will not have to read about the extinction of another species at the hands of my own. I am relieved that I will not have to watch the continued oppression of people, another devastating war, the rising sea levels, the death of my friends and wife, the disregard of the homeless in wealthy nations. I am relieved that I will not have to sigh every time I buy a food item surrounded by plastic, ache when reading about a murdered child, become angry as white supremacist soil the oval office carpet.

I’m not losing sleep over my coming death. Because I don’t (perhaps can’t) really embrace it’s reality, I don’t fear it. Death awaited is a delicate and unconvincing certitude because I don’t actually know when I will die. My death is, after all, just an idea. My death is make-believe, at least until the moment it actually occurs. Until that moment exuberance should be my act of impertinence and it should drive me not just cheerfulness, but also goodness. If I am finite I might as well love. I might as well be of good cheer. I might as well be good, or at least try to be better than I am. But as cheerful and good as I can be, the awaited death redefines the limited life before me and how I see, interpret, imagine, embrace the immediate and distant future.

To be honest, I doubt I am capable of exuberance given the state of things and the forecasts for the future. Occasional happiness, of course. Maintaining ethical integrity, to the best of my abilities given the compromises needed to live. Remaining engaged, I should think so. Why not? Act three has begun.

Copyright © Dale Rominger

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