I recently heard a radio interviewee make a statement so ridiculous, so patently absurd, so willfully obtuse, that I felt I must, from atop my lofty perch here at the Stony Lonesome Department of Supercilious Criticism put in my deux centimes. I don't want to be thought an unfeeling jerk, but this gem came from a man suffering from a chronic and potentially fatal disease. Let me stress here that his condition in no way affected his mental state and he seemed otherwise reasonable and intelligent. Besides, I don't think that illness, however severe, excuses this sort of behavior. If anything, I think someone with a limited amount of time left might want to take extra care when voicing his ideas and opinions, particularly if they're to be that widely disseminated as on a radio program. If I were on the short end of life's Polynesian war club I think I'd speak in nothing but terse, enigmatic epigrams to preserve my legacy as a thoughtful and sagacious man. Just keep a Bartlett's at my bedside and let the wisdom flow.
What I would definitely not do is go on the radio and allow a national audience to hear me say the following: "Death is like a deadline. You have to get everything done that you're supposed to do before you die."
If you are currently sputtering and undergoing multiple seizures then you and I are kindred spirits and you know what I'm talking about here. If it sounds reasonable to you, read on and perhaps I can persuade you to join me in suggesting that this remark be stricken permanently from the record.
I suppose you could consider death a deadline if you view your impending demise as an obstacle in the way of completing something like a jigsaw puzzle. I would personally be more concerned with death interrupting my respiration, but that's just me.
Let's go over what we, as human beings only — not as social creatures — are supposed to do. One — take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Remember the cycle you learned about in ninth grade Earth Science, wherein we and the trees made this symbiotic exchange? I was sick that day, but I've since read up on it. Two — disperse your genetic material. Luckily we have evolved a very clever and enjoyable way of accomplishing this. Three — assist other species, those without the gifts of ambulation and articulation, to disperse theirs. That's pretty much it. Everything else falls under the heading of societal construct. Frippery. Window dressing. I'm not saying it's not worthwhile and I find it wonderful that we devise so many entertaining ways to divert us as we go about the tedious business of being finely engineered and painstakingly evolved Xerox machines for our DNA. But macarena, Rubik's cube, karaoke, pet shaming, genocide, fiestaware, body shots, and a zillion other things all account for the vivid phenomenon we know as life's rich pageant.
Even assuming that experiencing or accomplishing some of these things is somehow necessary to fulfillment as a human being, how would one decide which? You can't do everything and you know what? You could climb Everest and swim the English Channel and run marathons and read books and learn languages and you're still, when that time comes, going to be exactly as dead as the guy who spent his life in a dank basement reading comics and cultivating fungi in his bodily crevices.
So who decides? The great scorekeeper? Will he be there, clipboard in hand, at the moment of your passing to tick off your accomplishments and determine the relative worth of your life? "Okay, Mr. Jones. I see here you served your country. Good, good. Killed some people, excellent. Built a Habitat for Humanity house, check. Kept your fish tank clean. Oh, you know what? You never really solidified your brand or beat Call of Duty. I'm afraid the best we can do for you is a third class afterlife. Don't worry, there are some very nice people down — over there. Clint Eastwood, Tom Arnold, I think a Kardashian or two — you'll be fine."
What we really want out of life is to continue living. The bottom line is survival and the answer to the ultimate question, what do you want to do? — is not die. Everything — literally everything else — pales into insignificance when survival becomes an issue. 100% of people, 100% of the time would surrender every earthly possession they own for five extra minutes of life. So when you die, you've lost. Never mind that Nobel Prize — you couldn't manage to continue breathing. You bombed out. You have now joined the eleventy bazillion other people who did their breathing and copulating and became soil nutrients, 99.99% of whom are not recognized or remembered at all. This is what we fear: Not existing. The world continuing without us. Our memories and legacies gradually evanescing into insignificance and ultimately nonexistence.
Therefore, the point must be to keep breathing as long as you can, right? The winner must be the one who staves off the inevitable the longest.
I don't know, that doesn't really sound right to me either. Because let's face it, life is not always all beer and skittles. When it's not drudgery and tedium, it can be downright unpleasant. Take my own situation, for example. I'm serving a long sentence in one of our country's most beleaguered and mismanaged prison systems, an unfortunate state of affairs by most measures, and yet there dwell people on this earth for whom my life would represent a significant improvement. People who never get enough to eat, who withstand unimaginable cruelty, who stand a very real chance of losing their heads every day. Can you imagine? "My head remains attached — it's a good day."
But regardless of the fears or privations or abominations visited upon us we all keep plugging along, determined to keep moving in the hope that things will improve.
In the service of making a point, I'm going to make up a statistic right here that I feel has a shot at being mostly right. I assert that for every person out there having a rough time — from the guy who lost his keys to the one about to be stoned to death in the public square — there is a corresponding figure who can help; who can mitigate, ameliorate, rectify, repair or otherwise improve the lot of whatever misfortune might be befalling his fellow men. I believe that the human race has the power and ability to heal itself and all its problems and I also believe that it will never happen. Our resentments are too deep seated, our gods to disparate, our conflicts to personal and ancient to see beyond.
Humans are bound and determined to ascribe meaning and purpose to everything. They cannot bear to think their lives are devoid of significance and so contrive a benevolent maker who lovingly shapes each individual and takes a sincere and ongoing interest in every moment of their lives. And then — and then, you get to live forever, only without all the trials and tribulations of life on Earth. Pretty sweet deal. You might be forgiven for thinking it would be a good idea to bypass entirely ethnic cleansing and taxes and infomercials and get on to the good part, but apparently we're stuck here for the nonce, many of us — very many — mired in dispondancy. We all want something. Those in painful or dire or straightened circumstances want above all for their living situation to change. They want the beatings to stop or out of the hole or something to eat or remission of their disease. They want the damn bear trap off their leg. The lucky ones unburdened with tumors or starvation or imprisonment want meaning, purpose and fulfillment. Intangible, solipsistic abstractions designed to fill holes that don't exist.
If there must be a purpose — and for the sake of this not being a complete waste of time, let's grant that potential — could it not possibly be that those of us equipped with crowbars should use them to assist those with alligators gnawing on their legs? Might it be that the point is not to accumulate money or real estate careers or trophies, but rather to give an assist where necessary to help someone else out of a dire, dangerous or deadly situation? So that we all as humans can share in the opportunity of the luxury of searching for fulfillment even as all our worldly needs are fulfilled? Instead of having to expend all of one's time and energy accumulating enough calories to just keep breathing or trying to keep one's component parts in a favorable position relative to the torso? It's completely crazy, I know, and I'm a million percent certain that I'm the first person to ever suggest such a thing and the sheer novelty of the idea is causing your jaws to drop and your eyes to pinwheel madly. But consider: Does it not, in at least a theoretical way, make a small amount of sense? In a karmic, harmonic, balanced sort of way?
I'm not going to go into the whats and wherefores of how each of you specifically can go about making the world a better place and help out your fellow man. But for a lot of people it simply amounts to not being such a dick all the time. That's all. Just don't go around actively trying to make someone's day worse. Once you've managed to get through a day without somebody wishing you dead, maybe try getting a little proactive in your humanity.
Okay, where was I? Right, the guy with cystic fibrosis. The great Douglas Adams, whose deadline has unfortunately come and gone, had this to say about them: I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by." If I may be so bold as to presume Mr. Adams intent here, it's that "you may impose whatever arbitrary restrictions you like on me, but I may be diverted, engaged or otherwise unable to conform to these circumscriptions, so tough noogies."
While the ultimate deadline, i.e., death, might probably make less of a whoosh and more of a definitive clunk, one might be well served to accord the same nonchalance as Mr. Adams did his literary deadlines. No rushing, no frantic scrambling, no quotas to meet — just try to enjoy yourself and maybe help someone else to do the same.