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A Meditation on Death

The thinker Alan Watts suggests that if every human perception is physically a wave, whether a brain wave conveying touch or a wave of sound or light, then everything is composed of both crests and troughs. That we would never see a set of troughs without crests, like we’d never see people with fronts and no backs. He uses this analogy to suggest that all binaries can essentially be considered inseparable. Something that is “explicitly two,” is often “implicitly one.” Nothing is infinitely alone in its truth.


I used to think that the Southern Hemisphere had snowy summers and sandy winters, and in a way they do. They have warm summers in the midst of our winters and us in theirs. Winter is never truly winter, as you could literally drive to somewhere where it is summer if you took the time. I’ve never been stuck in an elevator for any excessive amount of time yet it would be inaccurate to say I’d never been stuck in one. Isn’t that what elevators are for, to trap and transport to another floor? See what I mean, nothing is total and everything looks different upside down.


At any given moment we are alive. We define ourselves by that, our life. Yet, we are always a little dead. Our cells die a few at a time, and every seven years or so we have a whole new body. Like Theseus’ ship, rotting away in a museum and being “restored'' board by board until there’s a new ship in its place.


Aside from that scientific replacement, humanity is haunted by the omnipresence of death. From True crime to heaven to existentialism to classic rock to gothic imagery to reincarnation, death hangs over our life. The question puzzles us, what will it be like? Yet it’s the most human thing possible, it will happen to us all. But the dead are not really dead, the crest has a trough. Energy is not destroyed, it is only transferred.


Transactive memory refers to the memories and information within our lives that we store in the memories of those around us. The experiences, jokes, and skills that you build in the presence of those around you are actively supplemented by their memory as well as your own. When we lose people, they take these parts of us with them. The reciprocal memory of any experiences you had together. Yet, you remain alive (until you don’t) and the memories you have left keep them alive too.


My father spent much of his career tending to people in the final moments of their life; he often claimed that “people always die how they lived.” He meant this as a diatribe, idiomatic instruction on how not to live your life: if you push people away, you will die lonely. However, I see it as a flash point for Watts’ framework. We die how we live, i.e., we live how we will die. Life is constantly pushing us toward death. In fact, at twenty one years old, I am likely somewhere around one fourth dead. And in this way, however it is we are living is exactly however it is we are dying; we are always doing at least a little of both. The ebbs and flows, the crests and troughs, the inhales and the exhales: such is life and such is death. As Morgan Freeman so eloquently said in the end of Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying, that’s goddamn right.”



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