It happened at the exact moment you wouldn’t want it to happen.
My head had hit the pillow with a determined, if groggy, purpose. I had had a productive day at work. I had been to the gym. For the first time in a long time, I had worked on editing a video, and, in doing so, I had reminded myself of how much I enjoyed the craft of it. I had earned, and was ready for, an easy drift into the unknown comfort of sleep. I was determined to make it so.
Instead, as soon as my head hit the pillow, my mind, which had been foggy with sleep mere minutes before, raced off into parts unknown. Of those wild wanderings, of the paths taken and the sights seen, I am now sure of only one port of call. I found myself reminiscing about one of my heart bursting teenaged crushes, which had, of course, gone uncommunicated and unrequited. A crush from whom I had received my first wedding invitation.
And then it happened.
I’m not sure if it happened because of the bittersweet remembrances of the sublime joy of teenage angst or if it was caused by some other wild wandering now forgotten. Whatever the cause, I had the very thought any sensible person should avoid while waiting in the dark of night for sleep.
I will not experience death. Death, as inevitable as it may be, is not a subjective experience. All that I am shall end and I won’t even know it. Death is a certainty we will never know.
If you have never reflected on this inevitable outcome of life and if you have never come to understood its implications deep in the resonating well of your soul, don’t worry, it’s not impossible to describe. There is always a sense of perfect clarity, which is perceptual, emotional, and conceptual. You, the world, everything looks and feels sharp, defined, and profoundly immanent. It is as if the unreal, which is a gauzy mediation between experience and understanding, is simply no longer there. The experience, not unlike one’s first encounter with HDTV, is more real than real. Inevitably the mammalian survival instinct kicks in, triggering a dread-filled and heart-racing panic, as it fights and flights in all directions at once.
Or so I thought.
This time, another instinct kicked in and prevailed. Fearing the long restless night that was sure to follow the adrenalized flight from death’s certainty, some part of me resisted the easy slide into fear and trembling. Instead, I perched on the precipice between understanding and dread and I experienced the clarity of understanding, as if from a distance, without slipping into the heart racing panic. After a moment of unexpected teetering, I turned my attention to sleep and somehow managed to slip away into it.
Because the experience had happened so close to sleep, I might have forgotten it, like a dream. Instead, the very next day, I had another confrontation with the nonexperience of death at the most unexpected of moments.
The winter night had already comfortably settled itself, when I emerged into it. The air was cool, fresh, and crisp. Directly in front of me, a tall tower of office lights thrust into the sharply defined night, drawing my spirit up and away along its solitary axis. Perhaps it was the abrupt shift from the cloistered and artificial light of the office into the wide open clarity of the winter night; or, perhaps, it was a return of the repressed experience of the previous night. Either way, once more, that sharp clarity of understanding, which is so often triggered by a deep understanding of one’s own mortality, reframed all aspects of my experience. Fortunately, I remembered that it was possible to step back from the easy descent into fear and trembling. I did, and I walked for a few minutes in the clear beauty of a world framed by the knowledge that my experience of it would inevitably be no more.
In reflecting on both experiences, I realized that death is only one of the many unknowable non-experiences that exist beyond the frame of living. Life itself, once experienced, disappears forever beyond the event horizon of memory. Philosophers sometimes wonder what it might be like to be a bat, but now I wonder what it might be like to have been myself. Although I once experienced being five, fifteen, and twenty-five, in the same way that I won’t experience what it is like not to be, I can’t experience again what I was. Our memories are not objective snapshots retrieved from pristine archives, they are reconstructions made in the here and now. Memories of your past experience are profoundly shaped by your present experience and everything that made it just so. The inclination that one can directly access past experience through memory is as mistaken as the inclination that death itself will be experienced.
It was once said to me on Twitter that the fear of death diminishes with age. I didn’t believe it then, but, now, after my recent experience, I am more inclined to believe it. It isn’t so much that the fear is gone, but my reaction to it has changed. Perhaps the same part of our brain that tames our adolescent risk-taking also tames our metaphysical risk-taking, and maybe they are both variations on the same theme.
We are, it seems, experiencing beings that are surrounded on all sides by oblivion. It is only a trick of the brain that lets us think otherwise. Dying is a fact of life but death isn’t. Life, I think, becomes an end in itself only when we understand and accept that it would otherwise only be a means to death.
And that, for me, is beautiful.