“‘And what would humans be without love?’”
‘RARE,’ said Death.”
— Terry Pratchett

Death is a character in Pratchett’s work, and he always speaks in all-caps. He is a tender-hearted being who likes cats, but is very serious about his job, which is to help the dead get to their final destinations. He tends to be blunt. People who die in Pratchett’s work often encounter Death, who is usually sympathetic, but being a personification of a concept, can’t really relate.

Terry Pratchett himself died recently, of Alzheimer’s. He got it much earlier than most people, and it finally killed him at age 66. That’s 24 years older than me. I have a history of dementia in my family. Alzheimer’s is part of that terrifying constellation of diseases that slowly, inexorably rob you of your ability to think. Many people think this is a worse fate than slowly losing your physical faculties and dying, infirm but aware of your surroundings. Having seen both processes of aging up close, I cannot say that I prefer one to the other. The looming, large, intractable similarity they share is that they only happen if you get old. We cannot overlook this.

“Hard times? I’m used to them,
Speeding planet burns? I’m used to that,
My life’s so common it disappears.”
— Paul Simon, The Cool, Cool River.

Everybody knows someone who died young. Everybody knows lots of people who died young. It’s so common and tragic that most of us won’t traverse our childhoods without losing someone. But you can’t build an identity around it. It’s sad and it’s terrible. That’s not what this is about. This is about me.

At the age of 42, I have succeeded in not dying young.

I don’t think about dying very much. I don’t fear death. This is not a result of any experience I had. I’ve been ambivalent about death for most of my life. At some point I realized that dying is, at worst, going to sleep and never waking up. As someone who enjoys sleep, I am not bothered by this.

A new wrinkle in my worldview has been the grudging acceptance that I might be wrong. Wrong about what? All of it. For most of my life (let’s say 13 to 35), I was convinced of the impermanence of the physical universe, that human beings are all happenstance conglomerations of matter that get to live for a few decades of interrupted nonexistence, after which we return to a state of not existing. The more time you get, the better. But, fundamentally, we are all animals. We are (mostly) hairless apes who managed to live long enough to receive the genes of our successful ancestors. Consciousness, rather than some kind of end goal of evolution, is a bizarre side effect of the combination of beneficial cognitive variables. Consciousness, sentience, self-awareness, is just a byproduct of the adaptations we developed to survive the conditions of the African savannah. We aren’t even the only ones — Neanderthals and Devonians were pre-human (or protohuman, if you’re feeling deterministic) that emerged around the same time we did, and likely had the same existential questions we do. The actual qualities of being Homo sapiens that made us the dominant hairless ape on this planet are lost to history and are far beyond the scope of the point I’m making which is this:

I’m not so sure about that stuff anymore

I don’t mean I question evolution, only that the physical universe is all there is to it and we hairless apes have the vast mystery of the universe all figured out. I don’t know what caused the spark of doubt in my own certainty. It wasn’t sudden, and it wasn’t the result of any singular moment. I experienced a slow skepticism of orthodoxy, all kinds of orthodoxies, that I could no longer ignore. My thirties were a decade of big changes for me, none of them very visible to someone on the outside, and none of them were spurred by astounding revelations. I just kind of thought about things more and found I was less certain of the old certainties.

I learned more about Zen Buddhism

It feels like a cliche but I was a white man in his mid thirties who got really into eastern philosophy. My doorway into this world was Alan Watts. I happened to be looking at videos on the internet somewhere and happened upon a video somebody made using a bit of one of his lectures. He talks about the fundamental Buddhist concept of existence as a function of being, and the nature of choice.

Watts says this (emphasis mine):

You do not know where your decisions come from. They pop up like hiccups.

And when you make a decision, people have a great deal of anxiety about making decisions. “Did I think this over long enough? Did I take enough data into consideration?” And if you think it through, you find you never could take enough data into consideration. The data for a decision for any given situation is infinite.

So what you do is, you go through the motions of thinking out what you will do about this. Choice is the act of hesitation that we make before making a decision. It is a mental wobble. And so we are always in a dither of doubt as to whether we are behaving the right way or doing the right thing, and so on and so forth.

You have to regard yourself as a cloud, in the flesh. Because you see, clouds never make mistakes. Did you ever see a cloud that is misshapen? Did you ever see a badly designed wave? No, they always do the right thing. But if you would treat yourself for a while as a cloud or wave, and realize you can’t make a mistake, whatever you do, cause even if you do something that seems to be totally disastrous, it will all come out in the wash somehow or other.

For someone who deals with anxiety and indecision as frequently as he breathes, this is a shattering concept. This is a shaking of the foundations. This is a tectonic shift.

This is a revelation

I hate to mix my religions, but I will anyway. The concept of the revelation is integral to Abrahamic theology. Sometimes the revelations are personal, and God speaks directly to the stunned listener (the listener, I imagine, is always stunned; nobody receives a communique from the divine and thinks “yes, this is exactly what should be happening”). More often, they are second-hand: an Angel, a messenger, comes down to earth and speaks to them for God. Even more potent, and I think more effective, is the public revelation, a kind of celestial music festival where the main stage is, for example, a guy handing out commandments.

Moments of revelation are a reliable narrative device that gives me endless pleasure. I love when a character realizes something that alters the course of his life and, thus, the story. The music swells, the camera zooms slowly in, and the neurotransmitters for pleasure hit me like a brick. God, I love it so much. Here are two of my favorites:

Luke Skywalker is a kid in over his head. A plucky rebellion short on able pilots gives him a rickety old star fighter because an old friend and one of their own can vouch for him. He is just one among an entire fleet, doing his best. He’s given the fifth position in a squadron of five, tasked with defending far more experienced bomber pilots who have to land the football directly into the arms of a receiver so far away and so small that even otherwise hopeful rebels can’t imagine hitting such a small target. Luke watches in horror as every other experienced pilot is put out of action and he, alone, can save the rebels from certain death. He can’t do it. How could he do it? He just watched veteran pilots try and fail. It’s hopeless. He squints into the unfamiliar bomb viewfinder. The galaxy is doomed to fall as the rebellion’s secret base is blown to pieces by the Death Star.

Until a voice pops into Luke’s head. It’s the Jedi who just died at the business end of the sword of the guy who’s also blowing up all of Luke’s friends. We watched Obi-Wan Kenobi give Luke some rudimentary lessons on the true nature of the universe. It’s nothing very complicated. Use the Force. Luke knows what that means: reach out with his feelings, and don’t rely on what his machines tell him. Kenobi even tells him not to trust his own eyes, to trust his instincts, his connection to the universe, the energy field surrounding everything. It’s ridiculous, but it suddenly makes sense. It’s a counter factual, unmoored and against everything he was previously led to believe. So he turns off his targeting computer and trusts his feelings. [1]

Watch it with me, won’t you? https://youtu.be/zR7CeC-rqiE

That’s the first one. The second one is much more recent and not nearly as famous. It’s a revelation in a very religious sense, because it’s happening to a pastor who has lost of faith after witnessing the death of his wife. She lived just long enough after being struck by a vehicle to unleash a string of nonsense non sequiturs. The pastor interpreted them as the meaningless words of a woman dying a meaningless death in a meaningless universe and abandoned his faith. But the universe of the movie Signs is anything but meaningless.

It’s not until the pastor’s remaining family is threatened by an intractable, deadly creature from another planet (!) that his wife’s revelation is revealed to him. They spend a terrible night in the basement, menaced by these beings who try over and over again to get to them. The pastor calms his terrified daughter with the story of her birth, the first of every person’s revelations, as the monsters close in. The morning brings hope that they lived through it, until the shocking reveal where we finally see one of these creatures in full view, in stark daylight, cradling the body of the pastor’s asthmatic son. Here comes the second revelation, as the Pastor flashes back to the meaningless babble of his dying wife, which now suddenly has context. One of her utterances was “swing away, Merrill.” The pastor looks over at Merrill and sees him standing below the mounted trophy he got for hitting a ball extremely hard for the longest recorded home run. We know from earlier conversations that Merrill was an unparalleled talent, but struck out more than he hit. “It felt wrong not to swing,” he explains in an earlier scene, unapologetically. The pastor repeats her words to him, and suddenly that night she seemed to speak nonsense makes perfect sense after all. These are three revelations in one scene. It’s like this movie was made for me. [2]

Watch it with me, won’t you? https://youtu.be/bjv7CVhZXNs

My own revelations

I do most of my best work when I’m thinking, and thinking about Alan Watts‘s words was, I suppose, a kind of personal revelation for me. I had never heard what he was saying before. It made sense. It was an explanation of the universe that, to use a word heard most in creative writing classes, resonated. It’s tempting to use the word “resonate” because it has an attractive physicality. It’s an accurate description of the way a revelation bounces around inside you like an echoing musical tone bounces around inside the body of a violin.

Alan Watts has a nice, English-accented voice with the bristly edge of a tobacco habit. A quick perusal of his biography shows a man of many dimensions, just like any of us. He died young (58, only 16 years older than me), of complications from alcoholism. Even a man who spoke so eloquently of the freedom from the chains of a mortal existence was bound by them. He addressed this in many of his lectures, so it’s not much of a revelation — we are all creatures of the universe, and that sometimes includes destructive habits. His choice to drink his heart to death (he died of heart disease, technically) was spurred by an addiction, but he made his choices. It is the rare person with a drinking problem who does not suspect that they have a drinking problem.

Alan Watts, warts and all, gave me an excuse to not worry about things. He gave me a reason to stop the spinning brain cycles I spent worrying about things I could control and things I couldn’t. The solution to indecision is to decide. The cure for anxiety is information. Even more startlingly, the enemy of worry is action.

Don’t sit and stew, plan and do

The above is a quote from my therapist, who might have gotten it from somewhere else, but I learned it from him. It’s a nice summation of cognitive behavioral therapy. Rather than baste in our own juices, or masticate the gristle of our worries, devise a solution to your problems and execute it. When I learned this, when I really absorbed this lesson, it was likely the first of many revelations I would have in that office. This is how it works: you’re worried about that mole on your arm, the one that looks funny. You can sit in misery and worry about having cancer, or you can go to a doctor. This won’t prevent you from getting cancer, but it will eliminate the worry. It might lead you to additional worrying that you might die from the cancer you might have, but there’s a long way between a diagnosis and death. The point is nicely summarized by this quote from Alan Watts: “No amount of anxiety makes any difference to anything that is going to happen.”

If I dig a bit deeper in my own biases, I can see a tendency toward Zen Buddhism specifically for its similarity to the cognitive therapy that has been responsible for so much of my personal growth. They both speak to the importance of reason and clear thinking. My life got measurably better when I started internalizing those concepts.

Thank you for reading, dear reader. This is the longest one yet, and I hope I didn’t bore you.

  1. What we don’t see is another revelation — Han Solo changes his mind about the Rebellion and comes back to rescue Luke. He, too, trusted his feelings.

  2. People like to criticize this movie for the apparent plot hole that aliens vulnerable to water decided to invade a planet covered in it. I take issue with those who take issue with this because they’re missing the entire point of the movie: there are no coincidences. They picked a planet with water so they could be defeated by clever humans who noticed they were vulnerable to it. The Pastor’s wife had a dying revelation that her husband had to “see” and that Merrill needed to swing. Their daughter left glasses of water around the house specifically so Merrill had a ready supply of ammunition. Her brother had asthma specifically so his lungs would be closed when the alien unleashed its poisonous gas into his face. The unlikely coincidences of the final act of the movie are entirely the point the movie is making: there are no coincidences, and the universe might actually have some meaning behind it after all.

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