Whether it’s through spirituality, science, therapy, or philosophy, I always seem to come to the same conclusion: nothing matters. We live short-ish lives, and we die. Everyone we know dies. Our names are forgotten, or are never known in the first place. We make things and they fall apart, disintegrate. We are part of this human society which is very likely destroying itself and the planet to which it belongs.
And I call myself an optimist. To deny these things is not optimism, as some would say, but escapism. They all seem to be true, as best we can figure, without getting into speculation of an afterlife. So the optimism comes after the facts: these truths are enormously liberating. They give us freedom and agency. They allow us to be forgiven, to accept life as it is, and to be present right now.
The first time I was exposed to this idea was in 2008 on a road trip to Arizona. A friend showed me some Alan Watts. I’m pretty sure this is the piece I read:
We say the only things certain are death and taxes. And the death of each one of us now is as certain as it would be if we were going to die five minutes from now. So where’s your anxiety? Where’s your hangup? Regard yourself as dead already so that you have nothing to lose. A Turkish proverb says, “He who sleeps on the floor will not fall out of bed.” So in the same way is the person who regards himself as already dead.
Therefore, you are virtually nothing. A hundred years from now you will be a handful of dust, and that will be for real. All right now, act on that reality. And out of that…nothing. You will suddenly surprise yourself: The more you know you are nothing the more you will amount to something.
We spend so much of our short time here wracked with anxiety about the future and the past, about things that probably will never happen and things that certainly already have (or have not). We forget about living right now. These things holding us back, and we can let go of them.
Some Buddhist traditions teach taking five minutes each day to meditate on death. This is not a strange or morbid practice. It is about recognizing the briefness of life and finding resolve to make those remaining minutes, days, years or decades worthwhile.
I’m also not advocating a binge — trading future health and safety for brief moments of joy or thrill. This is the beauty and mystery of life. We can find ways to thrive and be fully engaged in the world while also moving toward a future of the same or better.