Just before dawn on a cold October morning in 2008, I boarded a puddle-jumper out of North Dakota after my father’s funeral. Mom, my two siblings and I were returning to California, and it felt like we were abandoning Dad. As I listened to Rainbow by Jia Peng Fang and looked out the window at the dots of light representing isolated farmhouses of South Dakota, then Wyoming, then Colorado, the song burned a powerful memory into my mind. Every now and then I hear it, and it reminds me, and I’m flattened, stunned stupid with grief all over again. So then I wonder,
Why the hell did humans have to get stuck with knowing they’re mortal?
It’s such a burden, and it’s a special gift to humans alone. Animals have no concept (although sometimes I wonder about elephants). Think how comforting it would be to have the limited consciousness of a dog, for example. You eat, sleep, poop, and watch for opportunities. You don’t think about your eight missing litter-mates or parents.
And then this is amazing: we humans adjust. I can go a whole month or two without feeling bad about Dad. What an underrated coping mechanism! We not only get used to the idea that we’ll lose our loved ones, but once we do suffer such a loss, we adapt and move on. The drive to survive wins out over grief, and even allows us to repress the knowledge that some day, we’re going to deliver that same blow to our loved ones.
Recently I noticed Bill was moping around. He was missing his parents, he said, but when I tried to comfort him, he declined. “The pain reminds me of the love I felt for them. They were good parents.” Bill, who doesn’t believe in a God or afterlife, believes he will live on through the people he’s influenced positively.
I get fearful sometimes in the wee hours, when the arithmetic seems more stark and life more of a crap shoot. Like you, I’ve survived tragedy; I’ve dealt with situations that made me feel almost mentally ill at the realization of a horrendous truth, or some kind of great loss. Sometimes it seems we humans know too much. One way to alleviate that burden is a form of denial: you stay busy and productive, enjoy the sun on your face and the fragrance of new-mown grass, and try to ignore it.
I finally told Bill about my existentialist woes. I didn’t want to bum him out, because he’s always such a Pollyanna and I didn’t know if he could handle my dark side. He shrugged and said, “Life is wonderful, but it IS a ticking bomb.” Cracked me up. I felt relieved. We know we will die. The choice is what we do with that knowledge.
I’ve pretty much decided to ignore the fact in favor of energetic productivity, and let the chips fall where they may. What about you? What’s your strategy for dealing with this?