If there is one thing I do not understand, it is why anyone would be afraid of death.
I am acutely aware that some of humanity’s most clever individuals have devoted lifetimes to contemplating the mysteries of the deep, not least one of my artistic heroes, Woody Allen.
Nonetheless, I resolved the issue for myself years ago, with a philosophy articulated most succinctly (funnily enough) by Allen himself, as screenwriter. In his film Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s character probes his father as to why he does not worry about his own death, to which the old man responds, “I’ll be unconscious. Or I won’t. If not, I’ll deal with it then.” Voilà.
We say that death is tragic, but that is only true because it happens one at a time—because there are survivors who must wrestle with their grief and yet somehow soldier on. Death would be neither tragic nor particularly interesting if we all snuffed it at the exact same moment—an eventuality made possible by the wonders of nuclear weapons, although that is another story entirely.
I muse on these questions, in part, because earlier this week some as-yet-unidentified jerk took it upon himself to blow holes in my hometown of Boston with a pair of improvised explosive devices, murdering three and wounding 170 more. In the intervening time, I have been asked—as all residents of stricken big cities are—if the Boston Marathon bombing has led me to fear for my safety a bit more than usual.
The question, however compassionate and well-meaning, rather confused me. Of course I don’t fear for my safety more than at any other time. I don’t understand why anyone would.
Sure, in the minutes immediately following the Boylston Street blasts, when all hell was breaking loose and the prospect of further explosions was entirely in the cards, one is entitled to a cold rush of fright.
But once the initial shock has receded and life in the big city returns to its normal rhythms? Well, as a certain British cliché enjoins, you carry on.
Yes, amongst the seven billion souls on our young planet are a few who wish the rest of us harm and have access to weaponry that can do the job. I was unaware this information had been withheld from certain people before Monday’s madness, but that is what one must believe in order to say we should suddenly cower, having held our heads high up until now. It is an utterly irrational attitude to strike.
Could I (or anyone else) meet my end by being blown to smithereens? Sure. Anything is possible.
On the other hand, as a recreational bike rider, I am far more likely to flutter toward the pearly gates as the result of turning a sharp corner, looking the wrong way and being rendered a human pancake by a passing city bus.
Heck, I live in the attic of a rickety old tree house of an apartment, with every trip down the staircase a delicate fencing match with the Grim Reaper, particularly after a few cocktails.
I could slip out of the shower, bang my head and never be heard from again.
Or I could live a hundred years and go peacefully in my sleep, my weary heart deciding, at long last, that enough is enough.
An individual’s cause of death is a matter for actuarial tables. It is only death itself that is certain.
In that way, we all step out the door every day under an illusion of immortality, confident that today, at least, we will triumphantly avert death. But then, we scarcely have a choice in the matter and, after all, on most of these days we are correct.
It is not simply a matter of “not letting the terrorists win,” you see. As if life only has meaning in the face of a homicidal nemesis.
No, it is about those universal American values that never go away—the ones about life and liberty and pursuing one’s happiness without intimidation and without fear.
I do not wish to expend inordinate amounts of my remaining time on Earth contemplating my own death, or avoiding all activity that could possibly cause it. It will happen sooner or later, and until it does, I would prefer to devote my life to living.