It occurred to me the other day that when I read or write fiction, the characters are not often pondering their mortality. They are too busy dealing with the dilemmas and disturbances of their lives and enjoying the times that feel free and unburdened. They avoid what I have done for too much of my time: dwell on what the far side must be like, a most anxiety-producing enterprise. Of course we are often shown characters contemplating the experience of dying – or being in that experience – but rarely do we see them pondering what it’s like to be dead.
Recently I have found that, approaching seventy, I don’t contemplate my death as much as I have in the past. This change has been an unexpected and pleasant surprise, a relief I had given up on. It was about time.
Today got even better. An epiphany frayed many of the remaining shreds of my anxiety about being dead, about experiencing, knowing and remembering NOTHING, a real possibility. I realized that our lives are like books. No great discovery there, just an awareness that has escaped my consideration most of the time. Today it hit me like a cool breeze.
Our lives have front and back covers. On the pages in between are stories filled with much to celebrate, commiserate over, and much to cause concern. Sharing all of it matters. Telling them is, I think, the best way to know ourselves, each other, our culture, our history, even our future.
Today I realized that if I hold on to seeing my life as a story, someday the last of my anxiety about not being here – about missing out – might disappear. I could become just like my characters. I rarely grant them time for regarding their inescapable demise. It is too interesting to watch them being busy living. The prospect of this becoming the primary color of my life is getting easier by the day. Again, it’s about time.
Stories are living things. To me they have a pulse I rarely find in books that analyze in order to conclude, explain, and persuade. Those books sometimes feel more like constructions in need of good old-fashioned faith to believe in. A good story doesn’t require that. I know I’m being too hard on a respected way of getting our hands around experience. It works for many people. But a well-told story with real and imagined characters doing things – dealing – goes straight to the heart of a matter and stays there. It leaves no doubt.
Stories help us pass along the threads that tie us together through time, even the time we are not here. That they grow tall in the telling is of no harmful consequence. A few lies sprinkled here and there, even great ones, might actually enhance their truths and meanings. As a good friend likes to say, “It’s all fiction, and it’s all true.” To that I will add that it all matters.
For the rest of my days I want to remain alert between the front and back covers of my story, free of concerns about what comes after.
A blessing and a prayer to those whose circumstances stand immovably in the way of such divine freedom.