A lot of our conversation in class at the end of this semester got me thinking about the fragility of life. A single earthquake caused the acceleration of the earth’s spin, shortened the length of our days by 1.8 microseconds, shifted distribution of the planet’s mass, moved Japan’s main island by about 8 feet, shifted the earth’s figure axis about 6 inches, and killed over 10,000 people. The death of a single terrorist who plotted the deaths of thousands of people is celebrated across the country. Diseases that we have yet to find a cure for are indiscriminately ending the lives of people across the world every second. Photographers and journalists who travel into some of the most dangerous places in the world in order to show viewers at home “the truth” are killed in cross-fire. Small biological changes across centuries bring on the extinction of some species, the proliferation and extended lifespan of others.
As humans we go to school, get a job, try to stay young by eating well and exercising, maintain a social circle, buy a bigger house, buy more cars, have pets that we cremate once they have passed on, acquiring wealth and gaining success as we go. Our culture and society has dictated that this is what life is about. The “American Dream” of working our way to the top of society from wherever we may start is the highest goal that we should strive for. But enough never seems to be enough. There is no stopping point in evolution, and the only stopping point in our individual evolution is death.
It seems that no matter what we do, what college we get accepted to or how much money we make, there is always a void within us. By accumulating “things,” material things and knowledge things, we attempt to fill this void. We spend time with family and friends, read self-help books, search for a god through religion, and yet still there remains a void. How do we fill it? Is death the ultimate “rebirth,” regeneration of evolution?
The processes of reproduction and natural selection are two of the driving forces behind evolution, and one of the observations in Darwin’s model of evolution by natural selection states that every population has such a high fertility rate that its size would increase exponentially if not constrained. Another observation is that the resources available to every species are limited, and from these two observations it can be inferred that there is intense competition (struggle for existence) among members of a species. Clearly, death is a part of life in the “big picture.”
I think that often it is not so much dying that people are afraid of; sometimes that is the case of course. I think what causes greater fear is the thought of what, or who, they will be missing, and fear of leaving before accomplishing everything that they desired to. It is the individual death that is of most concern to us. Every day we see on the news huge death tolls from the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, from natural disasters and refugee camps in Uganda. And yet these three, four, five-figure numbers or a panning video footage of bodies in the street does not elicit the emotion or inward pain in each and every person as a story or single stirring photo may. And it is the death of those closest to us that affects us most deeply.
I have been closer to loss this year than ever before in my life. I vaguely remember two teachers and a parent from a lower grade passing away when I was in grade school, but my first close loss was when I was a senior in high school, and two more this year. It is amazing what small things you remember about people once you know that they are no longer on this earth with us. I remember how much my grandmother loved to remind me of how I only ate broccoli as a child and how much better everything she made tasted than it did when my parents made it. I remember snapping my grandfather’s suspenders as I ran past him into the kitchen for breakfast and sitting with him on his tractor as he powered over the grass and fields on his farm. I remember sitting with my friend Alan doing the newspaper crosswords while he insisted that I was an integral part in the completion of the crossword when in reality I sat there smiling while he threw out two or three possibilities before shouting out the answer and scribbling it in. It’s the little things.
This essay isn’t to make an argument, isn’t to inform you of any new revelation or information about life and death. It is to commemorate life, and to at least say that we must come to terms with death. After all, as Paul said and the proof of my memories above: no one ever really dies- they are always with us as long as we can remember. Tomorrow is not promised or guaranteed. As we said in class, there are no universal truths, constants that are definite. Uncertainty rules our universe, a neutral variable that we cannot control. Just because the sun has risen every day in our lives does not give us the certainty with which to say, without a doubt, that the sun will rise tomorrow. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.