Life is terrifying in its brevity. The sheer vastness of the world — the fact that there is just so much to take in and make sense of and then find something to dedicate your life to — is overwhelming. And what you choose better be the right thing. There isn’t really a whole lot of time to get it right, after all. You have to proceed with caution and take great care. Most of us don’t truly know what we’re doing. We’re just kind of improvising, doing the best we can.
When I was thirteen, I sold off my video games and comic books for a couple guitars and an amp, I sluggishly taught myself how to play. I was terrible, but I loved it. I wrote song after song and started a band. As the years went by, I played in more bands, I wrote more songs, played shows all over the USA, and recorded any time I could.
After a while, I began to realize that after twelve years of playing music, I still wasn’t very good. There weren’t very many people interested in what I was doing. I started to lose my passion for it. I quit playing music. I didn’t quit just because I wasn’t very good. I’m sure I could have gotten better if I really wanted to invest more time into it. But that’s the thing — time. My inner-monologue started to crank. How much time did I really have to screw around with this stuff? Should I dedicate my time to something I may be better at? What are my talents exactly? Have I been delusional all this time? Those questions pulsed through my brain with an unbearable frequency.
I figured acting may be a good thing for me, so I tried that for a while. I enjoyed the business of acting itself, I didn’t enjoy having to say lines I thought were poorly written with conviction. I didn’t enjoy the corporate nature of acting. All this business with resumes and auditions felt like job interview after job interview. Having to deal with the egos of everyone involved in a production wore on me. I decided I wouldn’t be in any production that I wasn’t one hundred percent on and in so doing, I quit acting. There will never be a project you’re one hundred percent on. And of course, the time factor kept gnawing at my brain.
I began writing and producing full-length monologues for live performance. I also began writing history pieces for this blog and my web show. Finally, I had found what worked best for me — writing. I had always been a writer, but I needed to explore other things in order to discover that. I had also avoided writing for a long time because it’s so hard to get right. I was intimidated by it. I needed to see if anything else would work, anything else but that. It was so damn hard, after all.
But then there were all these other factors — namely, how am I going to make any money? The true story of my life is the story of jobs I’d rather not have done. From my time managing a warehouse in Sacramento to my four year stint in the Air Force to my current psuedo-carreer training dogs — all this stuff took time. It took lots and lots of time. Here I am in my mid-thirtees just figuring it out and I still have so many mountains to climb in order to get where I want to be. And the clock keeps ticking. Death is always there, reminding me there isn’t much time left.
If we didn’t die, if death weren’t a thing — I would have kept on with music for much longer. Music is extremely fun and the capacity it provides for self-expression is huge. If we didn’t die and I worked on music for say, a million years or a billion years and then found my efforts pointless, I could always start over doing something else without feeling any guilt. Being mere mortals robs of us of these imaginary luxuries.
But I did still have time after I quit music. I was only twenty-five at the time. I still had the chance to reappraise my life and start over. So, it wasn’t as if death were taking away the possibility of a do-over there. But the overwhelming power of death still dictates that we need to proceed with caution when making big life decisions. Given that we are mortal and we will die, there is a limit to how many times we can start over.
If life were simple and the world didn’t have so much to offer, so much to crowd us out and overwhelm us with, if there were only a few things anyone could ever accomplish, then our current lifespans would be adequate and the thought of death wouldn’t seem so damn tragic. If there were only like, six or seven big meaningful things a human could ever accomplish in life, then it wouldn’t all be so bad.
We all have relatively short lifespans, especially when you estimate how much in life there is worth aiming for. There just isn’t a lot of time to mess around. And still, there is always the chance that no matter what you do, no matter how many times you try, you could one day look back and realize you still didn’t make the best choices and you may have squandered your precious time. Now it’s too late. It’s this extra burden of deciding what to pursue, what to dedicate your life to, that adds to the pressure mounting on the clock.
If you are too ambitious in your aims, you will be absolutely destroyed when you fail. So it may seem like a good idea to adopt a life strategy that involves taking on goals that involve things easy to acquire, like booze, good food, entertainment, travel, drugs, and if you’re lucky, some sex. All those things are great and it could be argued that some are absolute essentials in life, but they are relatively easy to acquire and can’t add much value to our lives.
The problem with these things is they can seem fairly insignificant and their payoff isn’t nearly as gratifying as the big accomplishments. You know, like a career as a successful musician or actor, a published novelist, successful business owner, a major activist — leaving a legacy of some kind, something you can leave behind when you die. These things don’t come very easily, and there is no guarantee you could ever achieve them, so they have a higher value. You also have a far higher chance of crushing failure when these goals aren’t realized. That happens more frequently than we care to talk about.
No person should actually live by just one of these strategies alone. You need to be able to mix and match these things. There is a middle way. It’s important that we do set out for at least a few major life accomplishments. These are the things that give our lives value, even if we do fail.
I’m just coming around to understanding that there isn’t going to be a way to cram as many of the small things and major things into my life as possible. I am going to die and time will pass faster every year. That’s how it works. I understand that. I always felt that if I did cram as much into my life as possible, it would add more value to my life. If I did all that, I would have a very, very valuable life. But then I would have something very terrifying indeed on my hands — a very, very valuable life. Think about how terrible it is to lose a very, very valuable life. So maybe the key is to look at life as something that is worth losing — hear me out.
I’m not a Buddhist. Though I have respect for the Buddhists and tend to adopt some of their philosophy. The First Noble Truth of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that life is suffering. When you look hard enough at the underlying nature of life, you’ll see that suffering is everywhere. There is pain and loss and grief and failure everywhere. It never ends. Yes, there are wonderful things, but they all go away. They are very finite and they create suffering when they go away. The greatest things in life inevitably cause the greatest suffering.
No matter what, we will always lose. That just adds to the suffering. What the Buddhists try to aim for is freedom from attachment to these things and attachment to Self. These things we’ve filled our lives with — the simple pleasures, the big life achievements. If you are free from attachment, free from the Self, the loss is minimized. Eventually, there is no you to lose. If there is no Self, there’s nothing to take away. It makes sense. It’s probably the best strategy I’ve found for dealing with the promise of death.