On mortality, or how I learned to not fear death


If you haven’t read this piece in the New York Times, then drop what you’re doing (which I know is reading my essay) and go read it. Done? OK, let’s continue. (For all my problems with The Times, I keep up my subscription for pieces like this.)

Much like Gabriel Rockhill, I had a very intimate relationship with mortality as a child. I wasn’t exposed to death. No one close to me died. But death was omnipresent. Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing. Jesus crucified, dying for our sins. When you grow up in a religion where death is the central founding act, the fact of death tends to impinge on your thinking.

Was I afraid of death? Yes. But moreover, I was fascinated. Even at that young age—no more than 10—I had a sneaking suspicion that the bromides of my faith were just that. There was no afterlife, no pearly gates. St. Peter wasn’t waiting, inscribing my deeds in the book of life. My quietus made, I would descend into the deep dark earth, never to be heard from, remembered only desultorily.

My mother, a woman of firm Catholic faith, is scared to death of death. My wife wonders why that is so. If she’s of such firm faith, shouldn’t she see death as merely the transition to another, better life? It is a puzzlement.

No matter our degree of faith, in the end it isn’t enough to overcome our fear of the unknown, of that last barrier beyond which no one has returned. (If one is credulous, Christ returned. But one out of billions is not a great batting average.)

The unknown of death consumed me. I was convinced I would die young. (One would say I much preferred to leave a handsome corpse than degrade into dotage.) Would I face a judgment, the parameters of which were ever changing? Or would I sink into earth or sea, enveloped in the marshy expanse of the earth?

All of our rituals, our beliefs, exist solely to make sense of death. They exist to assuage that existential fear of the fact that we do cease to exist. And not just from old age, if we’re lucky, our loved ones surrounding us. But from accident, from murder, from war, from disease, picked off like so much fish caught by a net. Death is the stealthiest of all thieves, coming unannounced, robbing you when you aren’t looking. God doesn’t rule this world; he never has. Death is its suzerain, it’s grim master. One can’t even say that Death sits on a throne of skulls, gleefully counting his reaping; Death merely is, the end result of life, its necessary corollary.

I would have thought that the older I grew, the more fearful of death I would become. But, the opposite has occurred. And this in spite of any belief of a blessed afterlife. The older I’ve grown, the less fearful of death I’ve become. To the point where death is merely an adjunct of life, another milestone, the last one.

No, I don’t fear death. What I fear is a life not well-lived. And by that I don’t mean a life with no great accomplishments, with no great monument to my name. There is a cheap immortality in that, a sepulchral heft to being among the good and the great. (I won’t lie; I’ll be more than chuffed if I finally publish and my work is read 100 years from now. But that’s neither here nor there.)

What I mean by a life well-lived is: did I make an impact? Did I make people’s lives better? Will a child, well into adulthood, remember a kindness I performed? Will I be remembered with a smile, and perhaps a celebratory drink? Will I have died a good man?

It is the heroism of the quotidian which I want for myself. If I achieve some other immortality through my words, then all to the good. But, at the base, did I do good in this life? Did I live true to all that which I was taught? Did I, in my way, leave the world a better place? Those are the questions which every soul must answer. If St. Peter exists, I would hope those would be the questions he would ask, rather than of abstruse points of doctrine.

In the end, it’s not death I fear. It’s not having earned my life. We should all fear that.

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