Snoopy's advice sucks

If you know me at all, you'll know that I suffer from a persistent, constant, never-ending existential crisis. 

I think about death all the time. More that you could ever imagine.

In an effort to alleviate my concerns and perhaps offer me a little peace, one kind reader sent me this cartoon. 

snoopy death.jpg

But there's one terrible flaw in Snoopy's logic:

Yes, it's true. There is only one day in our lives when we will die, but we will also stay dead for all the days after we die. For as long as time and space exist, we will not. 

Death sucks, but it's just the beginning of an eternity of remaining dead. And that, even more than my death, saddens me. Constantly. Immeasurably. 

You see a leaf. I see something so much worse.

Want to know how I think? How I exist?

I was standing on the Old Drake Hill Flower Bridge in Simsbury, CT with my wife and children. It was a spectacular fall day. Blue skies. Warm temperatures. Laughing children.

I look over the bridge and spot this leaf, floating down the river. 

Here is what I think:

That leaf didn't exist eight months ago. A maple tree that has probably been alive and growing for decades took sunlight and carbon dioxide and gave birth to this green bit of wonder.

It's a miracle of sorts.

No, it truly is a miracle.

Look at it. Something that didn't exist now exists in color and shape and form. Born from an infinite number of random acts of weather and geology over the course of millions of years, this small, green bit of life clung by stem to branch, where it fluttered in the breeze, capturing sunlight to help nourish the tree that forged its existence.

But now autumn has arrived. The tree that once gave birth to this miracle has now shed it. Released it to the world. The leaf fell, twisting and turning in its descent, finding its way on wind and current to this river, where it will journey far away from its birthplace. Somewhere downriver, it will get hung up on a fallen tree or island or sandbar, where it come to rest, and before long, deteriorate, and decay. In a month or two or three, this leaf will be no more. What once existed in color and shape and form will no longer be. It's atoms will be returned to the earth, separated forever. What was once joined in miraculous combination will be torn asunder, forever. 

This miracle - this honest-to-goodness miracle - will be gone.

Had I not been standing on this bridge at this very moment, looking in this particular direction, this leaf would have never been seen at all. This green miracle would have floated by utterly unknown to the world. It is only through good fortune that this miracle was witnessed by anyone at all.

But even my acknowledgement of this miracle - my memory of its passing - will eventually come to an end.  

One day, decades from now, when the miracle that is me also ceases to exist, this tiny leaf will be unknown to the world once again. When the miraculous combination of my own atoms is no more, so too will any memory of this leaf. 

The only evidence of its existence lives inside of me. I alone possess the knowledge of this miracle in my heart. I alone keep it alive. But when my heart stops beating and I no longer draw breath, this tiny, green miracle will be lost for all of eternity.

It will be like it had never existed at all.   

It will take longer for me to be forgotten. The echo of my existence will reverberate for many years after I cease to exist in color and shape and form, but one day, I will be lost. Like this tiny, green miracle floating by in a shallow river, I will fade into obscurity.

Our fates will be one and the same: unknown and forgotten for eternity. Like we had never existed at all.

This is what I think when I see a leaf floating down a river on a perfect autumn afternoon.

Truly.

While my children laugh in the sunshine, these are my thoughts. 

It's not easy. It makes for a sharp, brilliant, and visceral life, but it's not easy.  

Perhaps a near-death experience is a good thing. At least one therapist seems to think so.

A mental health therapist recently said this in a comment to a post on the blog:

"I frequently try to bring on an existential crisis in a client to help them find what is most important to them."

I thought this comment was fascinating. 

I've often said that my alarmingly frequent near-brushes with death drive me (at least in part) to succeed, and that without my death by bee sting, death by car accident, and near-death by robbery, I may have never accomplished the things I have. 

I've spoken about this many times, including a TEDx Talk last year:

Perhaps I needed those near-death experiences. Starting out as a kid who had to leave home at 18 and ending up in jail, homeless, and facing trial for a crime didn't commit didn't make things easy. Maybe I needed as much help as I could get, even if it came in the form of several close calls. I'm not sure if I would wish these experiences on anyone, but maybe a head-on collision with a Mercedes, an undetected allergy to a bee sting, and a violent assault and robbery were just what I needed in order to keep me focused and working hard.

I've often wondered about this. As a life coach, I've once worked with a person who knew another near-death survivor, and he said that the two of us were remarkably alike. In fact, he told me that he often wished that he would suffer a near-death experience, too, because he said that we were the two most driven people he had ever met.

I explained to him that these brushes with death came with a cost, including a lifetime of post traumatic stress disorder, but he seemed to believe that this was a small price to pay for a lifetime of productivity, tenacity, and success. 

Maybe he's right. 

It's impossible to determine exactly why one person succeeds in life while another does not, but I know that when I was a boy, I wanted to be a teacher and a writer, and for a long time, both of those dreams seemed impossible to me and to everyone around me. The idea that I might find my way to college, graduate, become a teacher, and publish novels was something most people would've considered a fantasy. 

Today they are a reality.  

Perhaps this therapist is doing something brilliant. By bringing her clients to an existential crisis, she is helping them understand how short and fragile life can be and perhaps instilling in them the same fear of lost opportunities and regret that I have.

And I suspect that she's not holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger or sending them through a windshield in order to do so. 

Up until now, the best I could do is tell my story and implore people to heed my advice:

Say Yes.
Live Life Like You Are 100 Years Old.
Complete your Homework for Life.

Maybe there's a better way. Maybe you, too, could experience the kind of existential crisis that I have, and like me, maybe it will change your life. 

I'd love to know how she brings about these existential crises in her clients, and I suspect that my former life coaching student would as well. 

My son has become a non-stop death machine.

Ever since our cat, Owen, died last month, my four year-old son Charlie has been obsessed with death. 

Specifically his own death. 

This has not been good for me, given that I am obsessed about my own death more than anyone else on the planet. My mortality is something that I consider on a (no exaggeration) hourly basis at least. 

You may think I'm crazy, but I've died not once but twice and been brought back by paramedics both times. Had a gun was put to my head and the trigger pulled. I was also diagnosed with the adult-onset muscular dystrophy gene that eventually contributed to the death of at least three of my relatives, including my mother, and will one day effect me, too.

If anyone gets to have an ongoing, ever-present, overwhelming existential crisis, I think it's me.  

But now I have this four year-old existential reminder machine running around the house, constantly telling me that he doesn't want to die. Constantly reminding me of the thing I don't need to be reminded about.  

Our standard response to Charlie's declaration that he doesn't want to die has been, "You won't have to worry about that for a long, long, long time Charlie. You have a very, very, very long life ahead of you."

There's also talk of a heaven that I wish I believed in but don't and assurances that everything will be okay. 

It hasn't exactly eliminated his fear, but it's been enough to move him onto a new topic.

Yesterday morning, as I brought him downstairs, he saw a photograph of Owen. He walked over, touched the photo, and said, "Dad, I don't want to die."

Just what I wanted to hear at 6:30 AM.

I answered as I always do. "Don't worry buddy. That's not going to happen for a long, long, long time."

"But Dad," Charlie said, turning away from Owen's photo to look at me. "A long, long, long time means I am going to die someday."

Damn it. The kid understands. He knows. 

Honestly, my thoughts of death are my greatest burden. The thing I carry with me like a loadstone throughout my life. My existential crisis informs so much of what I do. It makes me who I am. It's responsible for much of my success. It's the guiding principle behind everything that I think and believe.

I'd hate to think that Charlie might suffer the same fate. 

I'd also hate to think that my son is going to continue to pick at this open wound for the rest of my life. It's hard enough already without this beautiful little boy hitting me over the head with an existential sledgehammer on a daily basis. 

I picked him up, hugged him, and did what I always do when my thoughts of death become too great to bear. I opted for distraction. 

"Want to go watch the Octonauts?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. And for an hour or so, we sat on the couch together and forgot about our mortality. The reality of our eminent demise. The terror of the void. 

At least he did. I hope.

Deep, scary, philosophical Star Trek thoughts.

Somehow a discussion about how the transporters work on Star Trek had me in an existential panic.

Granted, this is easier to accomplish with me than most people, but still. This is both fascinating and a little terrifying, even if you're not a Star Trek fan. 

Not quite immortality, but 95 is a decent start.

If you know me at all, you know that an enormous part of my mental energy is directed at my relentless fear of death. 

It is more constant and overwhelming than you could ever imagine.

And perhaps for good reasons. Two near-death experiences (one and two) involving paramedics and CPR and an armed robbery that resulted in a gun to my head and the trigger being repeatedly pulled might understandably change a person's view of death. 

As a result, my hope is for immortality. My plan is to never die. While this may seem ludicrous, my ability to believe in its possibility is necessary to get me through each day without collapsing into an existential meltdown. 

So here's some good news in that regard:

Two researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have designed a test that utilizes the eight most predictive questions related to American life expectancy to determine a person's probable lifespan. “These are the most important risk factors that we have solid evidence for,” says Lyle Ungar, professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania.

He adds: “If you’re in a happy marriage, you will tend to live longer. That’s perhaps as important as not smoking, which is to say: huge. So feel free to give yourself a little bump if you’ve got a happy relationship."

I took the test, and I was pleased to see that my life expectancy - before the happy marriage bump (which I have in spades) - is 95.

Not quite immortality, but perhaps enough years for the scientists to find the magic elixir.

Or at least to find a way to download my consciousness into some hard drive somewhere, which would be good enough for me.  

I wrote about a dream I had last night. Three dreams, actually. But hearing about dreams usually sucks, so feel free to ignore.

I had a dream last night that I needed to be at a wedding in four hours but was more than four hours away.

I started driving like a maniac, but I knew I’d never make it. Traffic. Rain. A billion stops signs. The world was conspiring against me. Somehow I suddenly realized that I was in the midst of a dream (probably the unrealistic number of stop signs) and decided to change the parameters of the dream.

“I need to be there in six hours instead of four.”

Just like that, the time of the wedding was pushed ahead by two hours, giving me plenty of time to make the drive. The dream proceeded. I couldn’t believe it. I had consciously changed my dream and slipped right back into it’s reality.

I was so pleased that when I awoke in the morning, I told Elysha all about it. She was understandably underwhelmed. Stories about dreams always suck, as I’m sure you are thinking right now.

But then something strange happened. I realized that I was still dreaming. Elysha was still sleeping beside me. I was still sleeping. I was dreaming about telling her about my dream.

A dream within a dream.

For a guy whose dreams are almost always terrifying replays of real life events, this kind of complex, inventive dream was astounding.

Perhaps normal people dream like this all the time, but for me, it was a first. I’m usually engaged in a constant struggle to avoid being killed every night. 

I decided that when I awoke, I would write about my dream within a dream, which I would normally never do. As I said, listening to someone recount their dream almost always sucks.

So that’s what I did, except then something else happened. I realized that I wasn’t writing about my dream within a dream. I was dreaming about writing about my dream within a dream. 

A dream within a dream within a dream.

I watched The Thirteenth Floor last night (a good movie in serious need of a reboot) and the reboot of Total Recall (which was done well). I suspect that the combination of two films, which both coincidentally address the nature of reality, were the source of my own complex dream.

image image

I’m also terrified of death and believe that there’s at least a good chance that we do not exist and only live within a computer simulation, so these two films spoke to me in a way that most others do not.

They did some serious poking at my existential terror.

Hence the dream within a dream within a dream.

Which turned out to be slightly more terrifying on a cognitive level than my typical night of trying to stay alive while the people in my dreams attempt to kill me over and over again.

Now I have to worry about falling cows. Great.

The Telegraph reports on a Brazilian man who died after a cow fell through his roof and landed on top of him.

As a person who suffers from an ongoing, intense existential crisis, the last thing I want to hear about is a new way to die.

The world is perilous enough already.

From The Telegraph:

Mr. de Souza's brother-in-law Carlos Correa told Brazil's Hoje em Dia newspaper: "Being crushed by a cow in your bed is the last way you expect to leave this earth.

His grieving mother, Maria de Souza, told Brazil's SuperCanal TV channel: "I didn't bring my son up to be killed by a falling cow."

I agree with both of them. There are certain things in life that we should not be worried about. Falling cows is one of them.

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The fact that I engaged in a few spirited sessions of cow tipping as a youth does not make me feel any better.

Karma can be a killer. And it’s patient as hell.

The thread of melancholy is unavoidable for this parent

Slate’s John Dickerson writes about the regret he feels about not inviting his parents’ friends to his wedding for Slate’s wedding issue. This paragraph, which deals with parenthood, was especially poignant for me:

There's an indefinite point in your tenure as a parent where you start to realize your kids are leaving you. For us, the first hints came at about age 9. As your kids age, you delight in the new bonds that replace the old ones. No longer laughing over Dr. Seuss, you're now laughing over The Avengers and tomorrow Arrested Development. Or you're watching them pull the wriggling fish off the hook, which was once your job. The moments are so sweet you can usually avoid the thread of melancholy embedded in each of them: With each molting, you reinforce that the molting is happening faster.

I am never able to “avoid the thread of melancholy embedded in each of them.” While I am not a parent who feels that my children are growing up too fast (perhaps because I mark every day in writing), I am constantly aware of the unending series of losses that parenthood represents.

When my four year-old daughter asks me to pick her up and carry her, I do so every time, regardless of circumstance, because I know the number of times I will be able to pick her up are dwindling.

That melancholy shades everything I do with my children. It reminds me of the importance of each moment, but it also reminds me of its impermanence. My nearly lifelong, omnipresent existential crisis has been both a blessing and a curse.

Later this month, I will be telling the story of one of my near-death experiences onstage. While preparing for that story, I wrote this:

There is not a day, not an hour, that goes by that I do not think about my own mortality. I live in a constant, persistent, unending existential crisis. Its causes are two near-death experiences and a robbery that had me convinced that I was going to die. It has contributed to more than decade of post-traumatic stress disorder, an inability to sleep peacefully and an awareness and fear of death that had caused me to spontaneously weep at times.

I spend my waking hours wondering if this will be the last time I hug my daughter, the final time I witness a sunset or the last time I hear The Beatles sing about Desmond and Molly and their home sweet home. I go to bed every night, angry about my need for wasteful, unproductive sleep, wondering if I can shave another minute or two off the scant few hours I already spend in bed.

I look at the world and I see impermanence and decay. I see a planetary population that will cease to exist one hundred years from now.

Dickerson is right in describing these parental moments as sweet. Indescribably sweet. Some of the simplest and best moments of my life.

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I would like to also say that these are unforgettable moments, but I tend to avoid that word because I know that someday I will die and everything will be forgotten.

The ability to avoid the thread of melancholy that is embedded within these moments of parental bliss is something that I cannot do.

I am envious of John Dickerson and every other parent who can.

Jack’s magic beans have a better chance of working than this.

I live in a perpetual state of existential crisis. Though I may have been born this way, I suspect that two near-death experiences and an armed robbery that left me with a decade long bout with PTSD contributed to my near-constant thoughts about mortality.

My children don’t help with this problem. Watching them grow up is a ceaseless reminder of aging process.

New research suggests that acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, may be able to alleviate the pain of an existential crisis in the same way it alleviates the pain of a pounding headache.

A pill to overcome the constant, omnipresent, soul crushing awareness that I might someday cease to exist?

I don’t think so.

tylenol