Are We Afraid of Death or Afraid of Talking About Death?
Maybe it will be fine. Maybe not. Let's talk about it.
BY Dave Holmes, Luke O'Neil and John Hendrickson | Sep 26, 2017 | Fitness & Health
It is the end of summer. We've put away our swimwear, settled our arguments over what was the Song of the Summer (“New Rules,” obviously), and bought fresh new pens for the school year. Soon we will layer our clothing and crave nutmeg. We will find ourselves in autumn, when the leaves will turn spectacular colours and then fall to the ground because they are dead. It serves to remind even a cheery person of their mortality, and none of us are cheery people anymore.
When I, Dave, was young, and I first began to contemplate death, I was of course a goddamn wreck about it. You mean I’ll just stop moving, and then I’ll be in a box underground forever? The thought did not sit well with me, and I ran to my parents for comfort. “Yes,” they told me, “someday you will die, and so will we, and so will everyone. But here’s something you can do: Just don’t think about it.” Don’t think about the fact that someday I will simply cease to be? “Yes. Don’t think about it. You’ll be surprised how much easier it gets when you’re older.”
I’ve thought about that idea a lot since then, particularly recently, as I have grown to the age my parents were when they had this conversation with me. And indeed I do think about deathless, but that might be because I’m better at distracting myself with work or numbing myself with alcohol.
How about you, fellow Old Guy™ Luke O'Neil and Certified Millennial™ John Hendrickson? How are you with this whole mortality situation?
There’s a tree at the top of a park at the end of my street that turns a glorious shade of pink-orange every year in the fall. My wife and I make a point of walking down to see it at the height of its decaying splendour to take a photo to, I don’t know, mark the passage of time, I guess? Scrape in a few likes on the ‘gram? But yesterday, in the middle of what has to be the coldest August I’ve ever experienced here in Massachusetts, we noticed a few splotches of red creeping in already. An ill portent indeed.
Naturally, it made me think about dying, because as hoary of a metaphor the changing of the seasons is, there’s a reason humans have gotten so much mileage out of it—especially at a time when we’ve witnessed the whole scale flooding of the fourth largest city in America, followed by another. I’d say it was of Biblical proportions, but at least in that flood you had the sense that someone was taking proactive measures to make sure it didn’t happen again. Not to mention North Korea lobbing a missile over Japan, with the singular dumbass of political history, President Business Deals, grimacing at the helm. Death is at the doorstep. I don’t think I am anywhere near as good as you are at ignoring it, Dave. Maybe I need to move to California where there are no seasons? Or turn off Twitter, which makes me not only think about death daily but pray for its sweet release.
I don’t know if I’m ignoring the idea of death, exactly. It is, as you’ve pointed out, all around us. My dad, my dog, and my pancreas all died on me in a 12-month period. I am in a new specialist’s office every other week. I am determining which statin is the right one for me. And pounding away in the background is the notion that our President might kick off a nuclear war because he was particularly moved by something Greg Gutfield said on The Five. I have never felt more mortal.
At the same time, I’m not focused on it the way I was when I was young. It is going to happen, I don’t know what if anything will happen after, and neither do you and neither does the Pope, so...I just have to move forward. I just have to occupy myself.
In no way should this be interpreted as, “I have dealt with the idea of death.” I have not. I’ve just spent a lifetime building mental walls and mazes around the thought of it. When my brain begins to go there, I distract myself. I don’t even have to try; it is a reflex by now. Maybe that’s what my parents meant: You won’t make peace with it, you’ll just get good at avoiding it. It will be like an annoying guest at a cocktail party—it’ll start talking to you, and you’ll know how to excuse yourself quickly and gracefully.
So I guess I am not ignoring so much as actively avoiding, and I think that’s the strategy I would recommend. You?
"IT IS GOING TO HAPPEN, I DON’T KNOW WHAT IF ANYTHING WILL HAPPEN AFTER, AND NEITHER DO YOU AND NEITHER DOES THE POPE." —DAVE
Ignoring impending and serious problems is, aside from writing, the one thing I am pretty well qualified to do. My father also died last year, and while my relationship with him was a whole thing, and his absence isn’t a daily process for me, the experience of watching him dying changed me fundamentally.
I turn 30 next year, and while I wouldn’t call myself obsessed with death, I’ve definitely been more conscious of overall body health this past year than any other year I’ve been alive. I started taking a fibre supplement every morning. I try to eat salad at least once a day. I play pickup basketball on Saturday mornings. I did my first-ever sober month back in February. Ever drink seltzer at a Super Bowl party while everyone else is crushing beers and eating wings? It’s weird.
Last night I went to a restaurant around the corner from my house and ordered a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a large salad. I had a glass of red wine. Then a beer. On one hand I’m like, these things help you relax and lower your heart rate, right? On the other, will the cholesterol and sodium and alcohol lead to early death? On the third hand (mind blown), what’s the purpose of living if you can’t enjoy a bacon cheeseburger after a long day at work? On the fourth hand, I won’t be able to enjoy anything if I spend the next decade making shitty choices. I also remember reading a profile of the world’s oldest woman a few years ago, who drank ate bacon every day. That’s what I grapple with.
My mother said something to me the other day, when she was asking if I was taking care of my back, which has been bothering me a lot this year. She said, "Is it worth it to not be able to walk at 60 just so you can still look good at 40?" I suppose she is right that it is not. Or is it?!
Outside my own body, from the time I was about 5, I’ve been terrified that my parents are going to die in a car crash. That fear has never really gone away. What is your primary death-related fear?
"IGNORING IMPENDING AND SERIOUS PROBLEMS IS, ASIDE FROM WRITING, THE ONE THING I AM PRETTY WELL QUALIFIED TO DO." —LUKE
When I was 16, on my second time out with friends in my mother’s car, a drunk driver blew through a red light and hit us. My head went into the windshield and the car was totaled, but blessedly nobody else was hurt. Ever since, when I am left alone with my thoughts, my mind begins to play tricks, and I wonder whether I actually died that night, and whether everything around me is some kind of Jacob’s Ladder-style moment-of-death hallucination that is only going to get weirder and more grotesque as time goes on.
I mean, seriously—look around. It’s not implausible.
Damn. Okay, how about this: Do you fear being dead or the act of dying itself?
The act of dying can’t be worse than the fear of it, so I’ll go with being dead. I don’t want to miss anything.
I don’t think I am afraid of dying anymore. I don’t actively want to die, but I am agnostic about death. It makes me sad to think about missing the people I love forever, but I wouldn’t really, because I won’t think much of anything when I’m dead. Sorry, this is supposed to be lighthearted, right? This Morrissey lyric has been in my mind a lot this year, which isn’t saying much because Morrissey lyrics are usually in my mind, but this one applies succinctly: “When I'm lying in my bed, I think about life and I think about death. And neither one particularly appeals to me.” I guess that’s how I feel about the whole thing. Yes, I’m seeing a therapist, don’t worry.
I think a nihilist view of death comes from whether or not you believe there is a soul inside your skin and hair and bones and blood. I think there’s a soul there, and when you die, I think your soul becomes part of the ether. Part of a blue sky and part of a fall breeze. I imagine the moment of death is like jumping into a swimming pool full of Jell-O. The moment you make contact, you instantly become stuck in it, forever. There is no time because you are stuck and no space because you are part of the space, both its inner and its outer realm. You are part of it all. It is part of you. Life is running around the edge of the pool, then death is plunging into the pool. Would all of our problems vanish if we could let go of the concepts of time and space?
"LIFE IS RUNNING AROUND THE EDGE OF THE POOL, THEN DEATH IS PLUNGING INTO THE POOL." —JOHN
I think all of my problems would vanish if, like John Hendrickson, I were on mushrooms at work.
But seriously, I don’t disagree with this. I came from somewhere I cannot imagine, I will go somewhere I cannot imagine, and the best I can do in between is to try not to think about it.
I used to say every year that I don’t want to kill myself because I want to see if the Patriots can pull it off again this year. But now I don’t even like Tom Brady anymore, and what’s worse, he, at the same age as me, is probably going to retire sooner than later, so then what excuse will I have? Jimmy Garoppolo had better be the real deal or else I’m fucked. You hear that Jimmy G? Or I guess I could just have a child. I’m told those provide a decent incentive to keep living.
I hope to achieve immortality through my work, and to check out knowing that I gave it everything I had. To really live each day. And also, if someone were to put an IN MEMORY OF DAVE HOLMES decal with my birth and death years on the back of their Sentra, all the better.
People would be sad if either of you died today. I would be sad.
Thank you, my friend. If I die, my final wish is to observe one day of silence on the Esquire site without a Game of Thrones post.