Every so often, the simple fact that life is short comes into stark relief, and did so for me recently with the death of a friend. We say “life is short” often, but I don’t strictly believe that to be true. It is hard to know how long life is, or how long it feels, as our perception of it changes all the time. Childhood feels a lifetime away, and even my college days are a faint memory, despite only being a decade past. In that sense, life feels long. I could live another sixty years, which would certainly make the feeling of these days small and perhaps insignificant.
What this sentiment is really trying to get at, I think, is that life could end any moment. We are used to continuity of consciousness. It’s the only thing we’ve ever always had. And still, everybody dies. At some point that continuity will come screeching to a halt. It could be in sixty years, it could be in a decade, it could be next week, or it could be in five minutes. We often take for granted that we will live long, relatively healthy lives. And I hope we do, I truly do.
At the same time, always believing that we’ll live long, relatively healthy lives may make us complacent. “There will be time for that.” Will there? Maybe. Maybe not. For the absolute most important things, it is not worth taking the risk that there will be time for that later. This includes visiting loved ones, reminding them how much we love them, hugging, making eye contact, and generally having a lot of close human connection. The things we do have time for later probably include: working, running errands, checking our email, watching TV, and cruising the web.
This past week has made this especially clear for me. Our community has been struggling to come to terms with the tragedy of our lost friend. We haven’t been working (much, at least). It just hasn’t felt possible. We have been visiting each other, bonding, talking about what happened, trying to figure out life, and taking solace in our connections with each other. We’ve been meeting up in groups of various shapes and sizes, grieving collectively and individually.
One piece of this which has been especially troubling is the fact that our friend took his own life. There is a constant nagging of “What could have been done? What could I have done?” We tell ourselves “nothing,” or “I’ll be more vigilant with my friends in the future,” but that doesn’t make the feeling go away. Ultimately, we have to live our lives as fully and as lovingly as we can. We have to spread compassion and joy, and empower others to do the same. We can’t change the past, but we create our own future by deciding how we act in the present.
Alan Watts has an idea of “living as if you’re already dead.” This is not about being fatalistic or nihilistic. It is about living with the knowledge that we could be dead at any moment, and that in a relatively short time we, and everyone we know, and everyone who knows them, will be dead. Not too much longer after that, nobody will even know we existed. The experience of this brief continuity of consciousness is fully ours to create and embody. We have no reason to hold back. We have every reason to live whole-heartedly, to speak boldly, and to share as much love and compassion as we can muster.
We can say life is short. Or we can say it is long. In a sense it is both. And in a way that aspect of it doesn’t matter at all. What matters is how we live, how we connect with others, how we express ourselves, and how we love. In a better world, we would not have to lose a friend to be reminded of this.