As my body is racked with pain, full of phlegm, and shivering with cold, this holiday season reminds me of the importance of occasionally reflecting upon mortality. For the past six days I’ve not been well enough to leave the house. I left the house anyway, yesterday, and as punishment my body made me sleep until 3 in the afternoon, in retribution. In this wondrous time of year, filled with holiday lights, good cheer, and festive music, I’ve avoided the light, lost track of the days, and shun headache-inducing carols. Many of the projects and goals I had for this week, and many of the enjoyments I’d hoped to take part in, I’ve had to forgo.
From this I could make one of two conclusions. The first would be that, by golly, it’s still Christmas, and bundled in bed or out on the rooftops it’ll still be Christmas, and therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it…
Got carried away there. That’s the first message, and one I’ve heard sufficient that it bears not repeating. The second, instead, is a sober, reflective consideration of mortality.
That I am alive, a living thing that also somewhat knows itself, is astonishing. Statistically unfathomable – as inexplicable an occurrence as that of the origin of life on this rocky speck. Some find joy in this understanding alone. Due to another set of peculiar, arbitrary forces and experiences I do not – for I have been cudgeled with a desire for ‘meaning’. To live a ‘meaningful’ life. Personal basic contentment in the everyday pleasures of drink, laughter, sex, food, learning and the like weren’t enough, although they’re more than should rightfully be expected of our time here.
You see, I made a deal with myself many years ago. I was worried about wasted time. Eighty years or so seemed, and still does seem, very short. So to make it count I decided I’d every day read something new, or spend time relationship-building, seeing new sights or classic movies, listening to new music. With this pact came an understanding that occasionally, a few times a year, I’d take a day for idleness, so as to better appreciate the work done. From these diverse sources, places, people and things I hoped to cobble together ‘meaning’.
My basic rebellion was against being one of those many thousands, or millions of people who led wretched lives. All this work was to keep myself from those pits of despair and melancholia which consume lives – ruin splendor. What has been thrown into sharp relief is how unsuccessful that project has been. My job keeps me so busy that the few weeks off I have are made terribly important. Since I only have every other weekend off, these too are terribly important. But I cannot abide living for the weekend. What measure is a life where you spend five days of every week hoping for deliverance of two, and those two despairing of the upcoming five? My job isn’t terrible – it has stress and deadlines and aggravations like any job, but it also has some really rewarding parts. Six months in, and I’m counting down until my next shift is over – this was not the meaningful life I’d expected.
Last year I had the opposite problem. In Singapore I worked so few hours per week that I was bored out of my skull on a daily basis, watching tons of movies and reading voraciously, touring all around the island but without getting anywhere. Both places and times, then and now, have had the feeling of spinning wheels – one in the air and one in the mud. Neither making progress nor gaining traction.
My illness has thrown this all into a sharper contrast still. I had been so looking forward to this break, this relaxation, but also this opportunity to make time for things. See friends and read books. Wander and window shop, listen to carolers and drive around to see the lights. Traditional things from baking to tree decorating. I built it up so much in my mind, yet as my body was racked from stress I came down sick almost immediately upon my vacation’s commencing. All of this sitting around gave me time to think, and I kept wondering, over and over, if I could make meaning out of this uselessness. Was there a purpose to this pain? I was too foggy headed to do anything, my old pact useless for days on end. A day or two perhaps could have been written off, maybe even as a contrast to highlight my productivity the rest of the year, but fully a week (so far) of my precious two-week vacation wasted seemed unfair and cruel.
And so the question of mortality is thrown into relief. If I continue on living the way I have been, it seems likely that I’ll suffer the same sort of fate the next holiday and the one after that. If I slow down then it’s less likely, but I’ll no longer be able say at the end of each day that I’ve made the most of it. My fever ended up near 102 degrees this week. I’m not sure if I can handle going on at the pace I’ve set for myself. All the same the idea of wasted days stills horrifies me. I’ve had less than ten thousand days. I can expect about 20,000 ahead of me. 29,220 days – if I live to eighty. That knowledge, that striving for ‘meaning’ is what makes this past week, now written off, painful. For if we truly understand our lives than we appreciate the significant difference between 29,220 and 29,213.
So let us all keep this understanding in our hearts throughout the year, and not live for the weekend, nor for the holidays, but for ourselves. With this we might better know our purpose and walk forth into the world with renewed purpose.
Except those people who I mentioned at the beginning who don’t need ‘meaning’ to be happy.
Fuck those guys.