Part 2 of an ongoing series on the meaning of death in a godless world. The basic idea: In a world with no God and no afterlife, death — like life — doesn’t have any purpose or meaning except the meaning we create. So what meaning can we create for it?
When I was forty, I went through a classic mid-life crisis. No, I didn’t buy a sports car or have an affair with a much younger woman. Instead, I quit a high-ranking position in a lucrative career that demanded an enormous amount of my time and energy… and took a lower-paying job, with less stress and shorter, more flexible hours, so I could concentrate on my writing.
The only thing that wasn’t classic about my midlife crisis (apart from the lack of sports cars and younger women) was how conscious it was. I wasn’t deluded about it; I wasn’t trying to fool myself into thinking it wasn’t happening. I knew exactly what was happening. In fact, I ran with it.
What happened was that I hit 40 — and realized that I didn’t have an infinite amount of time to get my writing career off the ground. Of course Iâd known before this that I was going to die — I’m not an idiot — but there’s a difference between knowing something intellectually and feeling it viscerally, having it shoved in your face. I hit 40, and I became aware — vividly, unignorably aware — that I was going to die someday… and that I didn’t want to be on my deathbed at 70 or 80, wondering if I could have had a serious writing career, and regretting that I’d never really tried to make it happen.
I’ve been doing professional freelance writing, mostly as a sideline, since I was in my twenties. I’ve known for a long time that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. But it wasn’t until I turned 40 that I got serious about making it a priority. Not just in theory; not just the kind of “making it a priority” that involves telling everyone you know what a high priority something is for you. It became an actual priority.
It became the kind of priority that involves making sacrifices. The kind of priority that means missing parties and movies and concerts because you have to spend that time working. The kind of priority that involves staying up until four in the morning to meet your deadlines, sometimes for several days in a row. The kind of priority that involves taking a job for less than half your previous pay… with all the sacrifices of comfort and pleasure and security that go along with that.
And I never would have done it if I hadn’t had my mid-life crisis wake-up call. I never would have done it if I hadn’t started to get panicked about how little time I had left to do it in.
In other words, I never would have done it without death.
I’d love to think that I’m the kind of person who would spend immortality doing marvelous things: writing novels and learning Latin, working in soup kitchens and becoming a championship ballroom dancer, reading all of Dickens and traveling to Madagascar. But I know that’s bullshit. I’m the kind of person who would spend immortality sitting on the sofa eating chocolate chips and watching “Project Runway” marathons.
Heck, I’m immortal. I’ve got all the time in the world. I can do all that Dickens and Madagascar stuff next week. Next year. Next decade.
I’m a very deadline-driven person. And death is a deadline.
I won’t lie. If I could magically be given immortality, I’d take it. I’d know without a doubt that it would be a terrible, unwise decision… and I’d take it anyway. The instinct to survive is too strong, too deeply-ingrained, for me to pretend otherwise. So I’m not saying that, given a choice, I’d choose death.
What I’m saying is this: Given that I don’t have a choice, given that death is an unavoidable and final reality, I’m finding ways, not just to accept it, but to use it to give my life meaning. The finality of death is giving my life motivation and focus. It’s driving me to accomplish things that I’d put off indefinitely without it. Death has turned me from a happy-go-lucky slacker chick with some vague creative goals but no real plans for reaching them, into an ambitious, determined woman with a clear sense of what she wants to do with her life and what she needs to do to make it happen.
And for that, I’m grateful.