Valar morghulis

“Till death do us part.” Ironically originating from the marriage liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, the phrase traditionally uttered on what should be one of the happiest days of your life reminds me of a rather more depressing notion: that when we die, we leave everything—and everyone—else behind. Death is a decidedly solitary and final journey upon which we all must ultimately embark. Despite the views of those who more regularly read those leather-bound books lining the pews that my buttocks graced each Sunday throughout my childhood, I believe this phrase refers to a complete and final departure from life from which you can never return. And this one human life with which we are granted for no apparent reason, whether we would prefer to admit it or not, is short and mundane in the grand scheme of things.

That is not to say that I agree with Hobbes’ depressing view that life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” –I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I am ungrateful for my time on this planet. In fact, I understand that it is very lucky that I’m here at all—that any of us are.

For you see, not only are most people who have ever lived now dead and buried, but also 99.99 percent of the species that have ever lived are now extinct [1]. Indeed, it’s just chance that any of us is here as we are: think of every step of evolution, every perfect moment in history, every escape from death our ancestors had to endure in order for us to exist. Yes, we are very lucky indeed to be here, alive and breathing, albeit for but an instant in evolutionary and geological time. But the point is, life happens and then, just as suddenly, it doesn’t. It’s gone in an instant: “poof.”

I once had a hamster named Britain who peed all over my kitchen floor for three healthy, happy years until one morning I woke up to find his stomach distended, his little paws rigidly stretching into the air, and a solemn-looking mother waiting for me at the dining room table with a box of tissues clutched in her hands. I shed a few silent tears as I buried poor little Britain in a decorated shoebox in the back yard with some lovely stones placed to mark the spot… but after that, life went on.

“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and above all, those who live without love.”

–Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows [2]

***

Have you ever considered how many people have lived on Earth? About 107 billion, according to PRB. [3] The thing is, the vast majority of people who have ever lived have long since met an end, whether tragic or fateful or peaceful. I hadn’t given this much thought until I read Bill Bryson’s At Home: A History of Private Life. [4] Bryson explains that small county churchyards sometimes appear to be sinking into the ground because the ground has risen, often three feet or more, due to the mass of twenty-thousand odd humans that have been buried there over the centuries.

Soon after I learned this, I started seeing dead people everywhere: imagining how many people over the millennia must have died in the physical space that my apartment in Providence currently occupies, or how many dead people must be in the Earth underneath me when I walk through campus, or how the atoms in the water I drink, or in my toothbrush, or even in the skin on my body, could easily have once composed a tiny portion of a human, only to disassemble and create something else entirely.

“It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.”

–Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything [1]

When you look at life and death this way, it paradoxically makes you feel both significant and insignificant at the same time. Of course, both are true depending on the observer: the universe doesn’t care about your existence, but you and a select few other living things care very much indeed. You and me are significant because we made it thus far on the deadly yellow brick road down which all life must follow to survive, and which to stray off means to be harshly, cruelly dwindled into oblivion. The universe is quite matter-of-fact to our protestations: as Carson from Downton Abbey so wisely states, “We shout and scream and wail and cry, but in the end we must all die.” [5] Humans certainly appreciate other humans’ aggrandizing insistence that our wailing and crying and raging makes a difference, but truthfully, the universe is not sympathetic to our griping. The universe, as “Johnny Truant” so expletively states, “doesn’t give a flying f*** about you.” [6]

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

       -Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night” [7]

***

The first time I saw a dead body was at my grandfather’s wake. I cried once, perfunctorily. I have never been fond of wallowing in self-pity. As I stared down upon his expressionless, powdered, waxy face and stiffly folded hands, I came to the understanding that death is something that happens, and once it does, it does not matter to the person it happens to. Nothing matters to them anymore. They are gone. The loss and pain associated with death is, I think, a mostly self-centered process of those left behind. Yes, there is a loss of the potential for more time alive that is mourned on behalf of the dead, but all in all, the quality of one’s life cannot be measured by its quantity. Moral and philosophical discussions aside, the point is that I felt—there is no other word for it—normal after my grandfather died, and this surprised me, because I thought that dealing with the death of a family member would change me.

***

In his book At Home: A Short History of Private Life [4], Bill Bryson was struck by the fact that a rare Roman pendant found on his property was the only thing the world noticed about that patch of land in two thousand years: other than that, history mostly consisted of “masses of people doing ordinary things.” This is not to say that people do not do extraordinary things. But as Bob Carroll puts it in his review of Bryson’s book, “The fact is, anywhere you look, no matter where you are, a history of ordinary people (and other creatures!) doing ordinary things that goes back countless millennia has unfolded and been mostly forgotten.” [8] Whether you think this observation carries a depressing or an uplifting message does not change its truth. Even when people do extraordinary things, they are seldom remembered and if so, often post mortem. Better to seek the respect of an intimate group of cherished loved ones during your lifetime than to pursue the type of fame that will lead to posthumous recognition.

***

In 2012, more than 500 years after his death, King Richard III of England’s remains were found under an “uninspiring gray square of tarmac” [9] in a parking lot in Leicester. According to CNN, in August 1485, King Richard rode to the Battle of Bosworth Field where he performed the valiant deed of being killed, thus earning him the title of the last English king to die in battle. Even so, “his body was returned to the city days later, ignominiously lashed to a packhorse.” After his death, writers including Shakespeare, depicted King Richard as a fairly beastly human being. That death applies equally to us all provides an important lesson in humility. That you relinquish control over the destiny of your story—not to mention your physical remains—once you perish emphasizes the importance of acting on the good thoughts and feelings over the bad ones.

As men, we are all equal in the presence of death.

Publilius Syrus

***

When I was very young, my mother came home from the doctor’s in tears one day, and so proceeded my first encounter with death, or at the very least, the absence of life. Only weeks earlier, I had learned that I would be an only child no more; soon, there would be a new addition to our family. But that day, I discovered that as routinely as life can be planted, it could just as easily be whisked away before it ever truly begins. For my brother (I always imagined he was a boy, even though it was too early to know), life was a muddled glow nestled in a warm immersion and, unbeknownst to him, the unfulfilled promise of something he never knew he should miss.

I crawled into her lap, cried with her for a little while, then said something silly to cheer her up. By the time my dad got home, we were in fits of giggles together at the kitchen table, the lines of our tears for the dead erased by tears born of mirth for simply being alive. Perhaps it was because I was so young that I was able to avoid emotional wounding. I didn’t feel the event warranted assignation as bitterly grievous; now, I feel differently. Now, I do not feel infinite.

I have been a graduate of High School for a mere five years. In that time, five of my classmates have died (one during the time of the writing of this essay). Nicholas, Madeline, Jordan, Michael, and Jon, unlike my brother, had tasted life, had nurtured dreams and cherished hopes, only to have them snatched out of their reach. Four of them died by, of all things, an event as meaningless as a car accident: death by happenstance, an unlucky hand dealt by a casually cruel, emotionless universe. It is curious that we should feel greater sadness in the loss of potential energy, human deeds, and human sins than in the loss of one who has lived a long, full life. Each life should be considered to be holding equal worth. But young loss reminds us that life is fleeting and every instant of life is precious. Thus we feel that every moment of potential life lost is that much more devastating, and we mourn the impossibility of life that could have been; would have been without the unfortunate fact of death getting in the way of its infinitely preferable opposite.

Death serves as a reminder that life is finite and therefore precious. The randomness and ubiquitousness of death and the universe’s stolid indifference to our existence teaches us that we are equal: as people, living beings, and moving parts in a complex, beautiful puzzle. Just think: one day, even the Earth and the sun will come to their end. In about 7 billion years, the sun will enter the “red giant phase” that is characterstic of the end of a star’s life, and gobble up everything in sight around the year 12 billion, including the Earth, by which time will have long since been unable to sustain life. [10],[11],[12] According to astrophysicist Fred Adams, Earth’s sole legacy will be a very slight (a hundredth of a percent) increase of the solar system’s metallicity. Consider Matt Wu’s wise words: “If the entire world is condemned to a fiery end as result of our sun collapsing in on itself then, really, who cares if I look like an anti-social nerd eating by myself?” [13] I couldn’t have said it better myself. Who cares if you’re [fill in the blank]? The universe certainly doesn’t, I can tell you that much. The concept of death, and that everything comes to an end, is a liberating one. So go ahead and do something that great-granny would disapprove of, because nothing short of digging her up and dusting her off will make her turn over in her grave. She is dead. You are alive. Live your life according to your living, breathing wishes: let them burn as brightly and fiercely as if the wick will never shorten. And if it’s posthumous fame that you seek, don’t forget to drop a pendant in your backyard.

Valar morghulis – All men must die. [14]

References

[1] Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. 2004. Broadway Books.

[2] Rowling, J.K. 2007. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Scholastic Books.

[3] “How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth.” PRB. http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2002/HowManyPeopleHaveEverLivedonEarth.aspx

[4] Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. 2011. Anchor Books.

[5] Fellowes, Julian. Downton Abbey. 2014. Series 4, Episode 2. http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2013-09-30/downton-abbey-series-four-episode-two-the-best-quotes.

[6] Truant, Johnny B. http://johnnybtruant.com/the-universe-doesnt-give-a-flying-fuck-about-you/

[7] Thomas, Dylan. 1939. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The Poems of Dylan Thomashttp://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night

[8] Carroll, Robert T. http://www.skepdic.com/refuge/brysonathome.html

[9] Jones, Bryony. Body found under parking lot is King Richard III, scientists prove. http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/03/world/europe/richard-iii-search-announcement/

[10] Adams, Fred C.; Laughlin, Gregory (April 1997), A dying universe: the long-term fate and evolution of astrophysical objects 69, Reviews of Modern Physics: 337–332

[11] Schröder, K.-P.; Connon Smith, Robert (2008), “Distant future of the Sun and Earth revisited”, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 386 (1): 155–163

[12] Franck, S.; Bounama, C.; von Bloh, W. (November 2005), “Causes and timing of future biosphere extinction”, Biogeosciences Discussions 2 (6): 1665–1679

[13] Wu, Matt. http://www.concordy.com/

[14] Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. 2011. Bantam Books.

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