The Theorem of Pointless Heads-ups states that: “Homo sapiens’ acute capacity to reflect on our own mortality is inversely proportional to the angle of our inclination to do so, and exactly equal to our obtuse ability to find whatever tangent best blocks it out.” In other words, as youth is wasted on the young, so too, wisdom is wasted on the wise.
That’s why, gifted with the precious foreknowledge of certain death, most people spend their time studiously ignoring it, so that when they do eventually find themselves nose-to-scythe with the bony guy in the hood, it comes as a great big surprise. And they dislike being reminded of it. If you have any doubts, just scan the reader mail on www.deathclock.com, a tongue-in-cheek calculator for how many seconds you have left to live, which tags itself “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away”.
It might seem unpleasant to dwell on the inevitability of loss. But it’s even more unpleasant to be surprised. The difference between the enlightened and the merely morbid, both of whom spend most of life thinking about death, is that at the end of life, the merely morbid are still surprised.
I once made a single (and failed) attempt to graduate from morbidity to enlightenment by enrolling in a ten-day Vipassana meditation camp at a monastery in Rangoon, Burma where I was travelling. It wasn’t waking at 3.30 am and sleeping at 11 pm that got me down, or the fact that we didn’t eat after midday, or that we weren’t allowed intoxicants or sensory stimulants, or the fact that we had to remain entirely silent for all ten days.
No, the real difficulty was concentrating on one’s breathing, and not having any distraction from the fact that we are only ever one inhalation away from cessation. My mind showed itself for the desperate little circus clown it is, trying to entertain itself into comfort with idle speculation and reminiscence and limericks (I’m hungry and sleepy and damp/My arms and my legs have a cramp/I’m trapped in my head/ I’d rather be dead/Than stuck in this concentration camp). On day three I almost lost my mind. On day five, a wonderfully restful, fearless feeling briefly came over me, which I ruined days six through ten trying to replicate.
At the end of ten days I ran out of the monastery, wolfed a hamburger, smoked a pack of cigarettes, and spent the evening in a nightclub. As I said, a failed attempt.
But I should have paid more attention. It may have helped when I suddenly lost my father. That was five years ago yesterday, a few weeks before his 58th birthday. He was a vital, larger-than-life man whom we associated with the reliability and permanence of mountains rather than the immobility and finality of death, and his unscheduled departure was, for all of us, simply not on. Unexpectedly losing a beloved parent is difficult to describe, but for the curious, it’s very much like being spun around quickly a thousand times with your eyes closed, then being required to walk a straight line to a place where you have your heart cut out with a blunt axe so that it can be regularly whipped for the rest of your life.
I’m working on acceptance. If the last five years have taught me anything it is that you can get through anything by nurturing a healthy respect for transience, and by retaining your sense of humour, even if it’s the kind of humour that gets off on the fact that there’s a place called Poo and that the Gangetic river dolphin is called susu. Anyway, I’m pretty sure my father would have cracked a smile too.