The Thinker

Getting comfortable with mortality

I suspect it’s a sure sign you are in midlife when you often ponder that there is less life ahead of you than there is behind you. I ponder the finiteness of life a lot these days, but in truth I’ve been pondering it all of my adulthood. I was hardly out of the house and on my own before I started seeing the hourglass that is my life in my mind. Mentally I’ve been watching the sand run through my hourglass of life for a long time. Sometimes I succeed in ignoring it. Sometimes I find it troubling. Sometimes I find it scary. At midlife the inevitability of death becomes more tangible. It is no longer a vague abstraction. It is not easy watching my own parents age. I am sure they are no more thrilled about it that I am. Every day with them seems more and more about beating the mortality odds. How, I wonder, do we enjoy life when we know it is finite and when the quality of life diminishes the longer we live? But perhaps the joy comes from the fact that life is finite. Having spent nine days recently in Hawaii I certainly came back renewed in spirit, at least for a while. But if I were to spend a thousand years in this Paradise, would it become meaningless?

I often feel paralyzed about where I should go and what I should do with my life. Ironically things were much easier when I was younger and struggling. In my 20s, for example, I had constant goals that needed to be achieved. Could we find the money to buy our own house? How could we afford to have a child? These sorts of problems focused the mind and made it easier to ignore the long-term picture.

It’s not as easy now. Ironically with many of my early goals met I now find I often have ample time and opportunity to do those things I’ve always wanted to do. Money is rarely a constraint anymore. I don’t have to struggle with mortgage payments. Except for this pesky thing called college, child-rearing costs are fairly fixed. I completed a graduate degree in 1999 and have taken up hobbies, like teaching, that get me out and help me explore new directions.

And yet I still often feel the impermanence of life, and I don’t like it. It would be easier, perhaps, if I weren’t watching myself enter a slow period of decay. All things considered I am fairly youthful for a man approaching 46. But I see age in my friends and me. I see it in my skin, which is not so elastic anymore, and in the occasional age spot that pops up and doesn’t go away. I see it in the gray that is slowly sneaking into my otherwise ordinary dirty blond hair. I feel it in the way that lethargy so often wants to envelop me. It didn’t use to be this way. Now I constantly have to force myself to exercise and to watch my weight. These are new struggles.

I am playing the delay game too, but I need to truly come to terms with my own mortality. I was at the Barnes & Noble over the weekend and skimmed a book by the Dali Llama on death and living a good life. His advice is to accept aging and death as a part of life and not to shirk from confronting the necessity of mortality. Death is the price we pay for the privilege of living. Shirking our mortality only makes living and dying that much more difficult.

It may be as Gandalf puts it in “The Lord of the Rings” books that it is how we choose to use the time we have given to us that really matters. It’s really, really hard though to know how to choose. I would like to be childlike again and give little thought to tomorrow. Real life though has wacked me on the head. I have learned to survive by confronting real life. I would like to move forward with the rest of my life with the enthusiasm of a child. In truth I may have nearly as much life ahead of me as behind me. And I would like it to be a quality life ahead of me.

I am not sure how I will come to terms with not just my mortality but also the mortality of people I care about. This is a journey none of us can escape. In a future entry I will ruminate on the meaning of life.

 

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