How dreadfully dull measuring a life in years. We should instead calculate our age by our number of smiles, total decibels of laughter, the volume of tears, pages read in books, the collective light intensity of sunsets and sunrises witnessed, times our hearts were broken and fixed, our kisses, orgasms, hangovers, awe-inspiring views.
Oh yeah… by the way… we’re all going to die.
I was first shocked by the prospect of death at the age of sixteen. I had hungrily consumed the complete works of Ernest Hemingway over a period of a few months after first discovering his writing. I would hand in one book at the library and loan the next until I was done. I then discovered a biography of the man’s life and set out to explore this character that was already leaving an indelible impression on me.
I revelled in the tales of his life but I had no idea what was coming. Even now I remember with alarming clarity what it was like to read that he had killed himself back in 1961. Took his favourite shotgun, placed his forehead against the barrel and blew his head off. Given his date of birth, I had assumed he was long dead by the time I started reading him in 1984 but this revelation rocked me to the core. I was thrust into a lifelong contemplation of death and a relentless fear of it.
Here in my early fifties, little has changed. I sincerely don’t feel like I’m exaggerating when I say that virtually every single day over the past three and a half decades I have thought about my own mortality. I am acutely aware that that might sound like a pretty depressing thing but while not entirely pleasant, I seem to have accepted this reality. As I grow older, it hasn’t softened or hardened — it is just becoming more real.
My primary anxiety regarding the inevitability of my own demise is that it will happen before I’m done with all the things I want to do. It certainly doesn’t help that I’m creative because the list of things to do constantly grows and will never be finite. Cue more anxiety.
In high school English class we were tasked with writing an essay about where we saw ourselves in ten years. I was convinced that I would be working as a writer, living in Fiji and would have won a gold medal in cycling at the Olympics. By one scale of measurement, achieving two out of three ain’t bad. I have made a living as a writer and have lived in Fiji. By another, I never got that damn gold medal. Didn’t even come close. The knowledge that I am now too old to compete — in any elite sport — dogs my thoughts to no end. I still have a hard time accepting that I won’t be selected for the national football team or the starting eleven for Arsenal. Nevermind how unlikely that has ever been.
My first tangible fear of death was in 1989, at 10,000 meters on an Air New Zealand flight from Honolulu to Auckland. I was heading out to explore the world with a backpack. I had always been comfortable flying up to that point but then I started to focus on the screens that showed our position over the Pacific. The closest land was a small island 800 miles to the east and another 600 miles to the west. Wait… what? If the engines died and the 747 had to glide to safety, they wouldn’t make it to either island and neither of them, I was sure, had a runway that could handle a large passenger jet. That was the first time I experienced anxiety. Now I spend half my life travelling for work, but I’m never comfortable with flying. I’ve managed to rationalise it down to feeling anxiety at take-off. Once the seatbelt sign is turned off, I can relax.
In the years after reading about Hemingway’s death, I lost three grandparents and while that saddened me, they were old and lived far away. I was sad for my parents more than for myself. Luckily, I haven’t experienced an above-average amount of death in my life. I’ve lost an older brother, an adult niece and my parents — all incredibly sad events — but statistically with the huge family I ended up with, the percentages are low. Apart from an adopted younger brother, I’m the youngest of five much older siblings so I can expect to see them go before I do. This certainly doesn’t help with my internal struggle against thinking about mortality.
In spite of my anxiety about death, I have always tried to get the most out of life. I think I was going to do that anyway, regardless of being launched into overthinking about mortality. 2020 has caused many of us to take stock of life, slow down, reflect and readjust. When pleasures are removed due to restrictions and lockdowns, you amplify the pleasure of what you have left. I decided to compile a list of the things I’ll miss when I’m dead. It started at the back gate to my building’s courtyard in Copenhagen. I was rather drunk from a cracking evening at my local wine bar and I took out my keys to unlock the gate. The technique I have finetuned pleases me and I thought, “man… all the work that has gone into this and then you die and it all disappears.”
I realised that it is the simple, personal pleasures that define us and how we live our lives that matter most. Far more than the list of things we’re not doing but think we should be. Which is why I started the “100 Things I’ll Miss When I’m Dead” podcast, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts — or right here on Buzzsprout.
Death is the server coming up to your table with the bill, informing you that the bar is closing. Let’s have one more drink.