Happy birthday to me!
And precisely how old am I? Well, I hope you’ll allow me to avoid that question for the moment because I don’t think it’s especially relevant to much of anything.
Suffice to say, death is very real to me.
Now, of course, to some degree this has always been the case, except during my prepubescent childhood days when I didn’t fully realize – in a concrete, existential way – that my days were numbered. I think that’s true for most of us; that is, as children our tomorrows seem infinite. Though children celebrate birthdays, they aren’t really aware of time and its passage. But sometime during the years of puberty, we grasp the notion of death, even though it remains little more than an abstraction in the distant future.
Some young people mistakenly cling to the notion that scientific advances in stem-cell research, heart disease, and diabetes cures – or whatever – will extend their lives forever. Yeah, well that’s a fantasy. I mean, they may live well into their 100s, but sooner or later cancer will nail them. Or, if they find a cure for cancer and even if they stop the aging process, than it will be some new strain of vaccine-resistant virus. Or perhaps someone will shoot you. (If it isn’t one damned thing, it’s another.) If nothing else, the body simply wears out; nothing runs forever.
As we age, the fact of death gradually becomes more and more tangible. Though it’s a poor substitute for actual life and living, some of us hope to accomplish something so spectacular it will leave a permanent, historical legacy, thereby assuring us some type of flimsy immortality. But that’s just another fantasy. Eventually almost everyone comes to the ego-deflating realization that nothing any of us ever accomplish will leave our names stamped in historical fame. Most of us simply raise our families – which is noble enough – but it surely isn’t a mark of distinction.
Of course, there are exceptions. Some people capture a degree of fame that withstands the test of time. But these individuals are rare. Very rare. Indeed, the general public will soon forget most of our famous, 20th-century heroes. In 50 years, how many high school students, if we still have high schools, will know who Gandhi and Churchill were? Unconscionable as it may be, it could turn out that Hitler is the most recognized name of the 20th century.
So, speaking philosophically and/or rationally, what we have, as Albert Camus so elegantly pointed out, is a most absurd situation. We labor our whole lives trying to accomplish something that probably isn’t of any significance and then we die, alone, and are soon forgotten. And rest assured, no matter how many family members are at your side, during the last few minutes of your life, you’re totally alone with your own consciousness to face whatever it is you face, it anything. And no mater how large your family, within a few years, relatively speaking, you’ll be forgotten. I have no earthly idea who my great-grandparents were and couldn’t care less.
So it goes.
And now I have to take a bath and get cleaned up for tonight’s party. Happy birthday to me!