Over the past few months, my life has been touched by death repeatedly. Cultural icons of my youth are dropping left and right, and I’ve learned a new hesitation to track down old friends and acquaintances. I’ve known elders who commented that everyone they knew was dead or dying, but I hadn’t expected to experience that in middle age. It has suddenly become difficult to ignore the inevitability of my own death, which I had fully expected to go on denying for another two or three decades, at minimum.
I try to face my discomfort with death head on. What am I afraid of? Because I am afraid.
It’s the uncertainty of the the thing. We have no clue what death is, subjectively speaking. Have I spent a lifetime deciphering my own identity, only to have it wash away like one grain of sand among billions on an ocean beach? There are forms of beauty that are especially poignant because of their transience and fragility – a flower, a sunset, a butterfly, a perfect performance. But surely a unique complex identity is composed of sterner stuff.
There is a generational component to identity, a collective consciousness of a moment in time that is interwoven into the self-sense of teenagers when they begin to recognize their membership in a greater cultural entity. It peaks early, strongest when they strike out into the world with tremendous energy, but have not yet formed the more differentiated self that evolves with experience.
They are largely unconscious of this, until the next generational consciousness begins to emerge. Then they begin to comprehend that their generational ambiance is one of many. And for awhile, we co-exist with overlapping eras. The others never influence us quite as much as our own, nor are they as completely merged with our personal identity, yet we may still recognize and participate in them to a substantial degree.
However, a time comes when the ranks of those who shared our generational moment begin to thin. We become conscious of the impermanence of living history, carried only by those who participated in it, and once gone, gone forever. I am beginning to understand why Tolkein’s elves sailed away into the west. Being the final vessel of a passing era is too lonely and too sad to endure.
I am newly conscious of my role as one pillar – of a now-numbered set of pillars – of generational memory. It doesn’t seem like that could even be a thing. Sure, people the same age experience the same objective events, but we interpret them through an infinite variety of personal filters.
Nevertheless, millions of tiny experiences that we are hardly aware of construct a common temporal context – ads and songs, wars and elections, weather and assassinations, TV and technology. Eight track tapes. Themes by Henry Mancini. Bazooka bubble gum. Where we were when Kennedy was shot. There’s a reason people who meet up with their high school sweethearts later in life so often marry them.
My Left Mind
I know I’m not just thinking about this stuff because I’m in my late 50s. There have been many deaths close to home in my life this past year. It’s been a bad year for SAD, too, now that the persistent sunniness of three years of drought has abated. And my business is improving, but not quickly or steadily enough to stave off the stresses of poverty. Top it all off with a windy spring and a minor but persistent injury that has kept me inactive and indoors.
So I tell myself this too will pass, like my panic at 32 when I realized I probably wouldn’t fulfill about 99% of my dreams. The loss and shock I experienced then seem funny now. Many of the things I thought I wanted then weren’t my dreams at all, and I’m relieved I didn’t pursue them. The life I’ve lived instead has been interesting enough.
But I’m not ready for it to end yet, or to even think about it ending. There’s so much more I want to know. What if my life turns out to be about getting answers, not having them? What if, once I learn all I want to know, the cycle is complete, and I don’t have a chance to enjoy it?
I started this post before a teenager was murdered under my workplace windows. Needless to say, that hasn’t helped my anxiety. I often go in to the office during off hours, when it is quieter. Now the idea of empty corridors disturbs me. I’m afraid of the place, afraid to be alone there. Which is utterly irrational, since she was killed outdoors on a busy sidewalk during rush hour.
I try not to take thoughts like these too literally. Depression and anxiety are very good at tying up the mind in tangles of concept and emotion. The issues seem so close, so huge, so vividly real. But I know they can melt away with a little light therapy, or a regularized sleep cycle. There’s a transconsciousness I have experienced now and then, where I suddenly looked down upon all of that frenetic activity in my head from a place outside of it. I remember that state, but I’m not feeling it.
Wish I was.