death. week 16.
The church epitomizes our ability (and need) to transform suffering into beauty and love.
No, not quite transform. Suffering can’t be transformed. But it can be integrated, channeled.
I’ve had a strange few days. On Wednesday, I made the trip up from Rome to Perugia. I went straight to a bar to meet Giovanna and her friends.
So there I was, as midnight approached, shlepping my suitcases up a long windy hill, praying that Gio’s English had gotten a bit better since I’d last seen her a year ago (cuz my Italian definitely hasn’t).
Luckily, the friend she was hanging out with, Carlo, spoke a great English, so the three of us got along pretty well.
Well, at least until Carlo lit up the first joint. I hadn’t smoked in a couple months, and after a couple hits my mind went right into ‘off-road mode’
Carlo asked me about philosophy so of course I launched into a monologue on the nature of death. He’s a doctor, so he was more receptive than most.
I could tell that the topic was making Giovanna sad. Her eyes filled with pain. But I couldn’t hold myself back :( I feel bad.
Eventually, she left to go home, leaving Carlo and I to continue drinking.
Death and weed don’t mix very well. I’m simply not strong enough to know the truth and feel it too. When I’m high, I’m not as good at hiding things from myself.
I told Carlo that what really terrifies me about death is its complete mystery. In glimpsing the darkness, no, the nothingness that presses in upon us all, I am simultaneously made aware of the nothingness of everything around me. In realizing that no one knows anything at all about death, I remember that no one knows anything at all about life. Least of all me.
I look into your face, but no longer see you. I hear you speak, but can’t make out what you’re saying.
Family? Hope? Meaning? Happiness? Pure gibberish.
Everything around me blurs (or does it sharpen?), reduced to 0s and 1s.
Reality itself returns to its original chaos. But even chaos cannot withstand the collapse. Chaos folds into chaos, as some kind of divine vacuum sucks life out from within itself.
Only horror remains.
To survive, I must live in my imagination. I must find or create or believe in something that can serve as my anchor. I must become a character in a story of my own inventing; a story that holds it all together.
But death gives nothing at all. It only takes. Death ceaselessly proclaims its total Otherness, and in so doing, casts a deep shadow back out across all of life.
Death makes life impossible.
To be or not to be, that is the only question. But we both know that I’m too cowardly to ‘not be’. And so I’m left with no real choice. The real question: am I strong enough to be?
Again, the answer is no. I cannot accept the facts of life and then continue on.
And so I lie to myself. And I lie to others. I live a lie. I become a lie.
To be or not to be? Fuck you. I don’t need to answer your questions.
I am not afraid of death. But life terrifies me.
Carlo told me that he has a gap between his mind and his heart. His intellect tells him that there is no afterlife. But in his heart he keeps hope.
I told him that that’s exactly how Socrates felt during his final hours (according to Phaedo).
As I stared off into the darkness, surrounded by strangers, feeling my own strangeness grow inside of me, I decided to give up on my death project.
It is costing me too much. I find myself constantly in danger of losing my sanity, collapsing into panic.
I’m terrified. I’m overwhelmed.
Perhaps my desire to ‘come to terms’ with death was misguided from the start. Perhaps the only lesson I can learn from death is that not everything is meant to be understood. Or grasped. Perhaps man is not the measure of all things. Maybe some things, like death itself, are simply ungraspable.
I stumbled back to Giovanna’s apartment around 2 in the morning, drunk high and scared.
But also happy. Also happy.
We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably, we remain. By slow degrees our sickness, and dizziness, and horror, become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius, or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall—this rushing annihilation—for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination—for this very cause do we now most vividly desire it.
— Edgar Allen Poe, "The Imp of the Perverse"
While walking around Perugia this afternoon, we occasionally bumped into Giovanna’s friends. After all, it’s a small city and she’s lived here all her life.
One of these encounters was with a Sicilian guy who moved to Perugia to study singing at the conservatory where Giovanna studied piano.
Now he lives on a sort of campground outside the city, where he lives in a trailer while working as a waiter. This isn’t a sob story. He likes living there. I suppose he’s some sort of minimalist. (A macho minimalist, as we’ll see. Macho minimalism has a nice ring to it.)
In any case, he invited us over for dinner and I figured wtf, should be fun. (G seemed a bit apprehensive, but I chose to ignore that warning sign.)
So at around 9:30 he pulls up to our place in a rusting old car and we all pile in.
Spoiler: It didn’t take more than a few minutes for me to realize that this was going to be a challenging evening. Vincent (the dude) is kind of ‘macho’ and barely speaks English. So, okay, I let them do their thing in Italian and just stare out the window.
Vincent is driving with a beer in one hand, joint in the other, staring with his knees, and somehow also shifting gears while he speeds around the curves in the hilly Umbrian terrain. Not exactly a boring ride.
Well, at least not at first.
One hour later. Two hours later. Three hours later.
We’d eaten hamburgers, smoked, swam in the pool, and were now chilling at a table in front of his trailer, pretending that we weren’t all being eaten to death by mosquitos. And in all this time, I had barely spoken more than a few sentences.
When I tried to cut in with my English, it was so hard for them to respond that it wasn’t even worth the effort. Instead, I just sat alone scrolling through my phone while they talked.
Anyways, why am I saying this? Oh yeah, this strange scenario gave me the chance to be alone with other people. Here were some of my thoughts:
While floating on my back in the pool, gazing up at the stars, Italian chatter filling my ears:
I am living life today. Not tomorrow, not next year. Today. Right now, this very moment, I am traveling through space and time to discover the pieces of myself that have not yet been born. (I am on an epic journey to nowhere and everywhere, all at once. I am given many tools, but it is I who must build the boat and plot the course.) I have never and will never be satisfied with my life, but hey look at me now. I’m in Italy, with friends, as a writer, and all of life to look forward to.
I glance over at Giovanna. Her moonlit face glows as she talks excitedly. She’s on the very same journey as me. Only she’s doing it in a completely new way. But look how beautifully she’s doing too! What sort of strange magic is it that’s joined us (all of us!) together; to keep each other company as we make the long trek from darkness to darkness? How do I ever allow myself to forget how perfectly individual, how impossibly real each person is? How is it that I allow entire days to pass in which I forget to celebrate the miracle of life? Well, I suppose that to recognize this miracle, I have to notice how fragile and unexpected the whole thing really is. There’s a dark side to every blessing. Perhaps one day, in the future, I’ll be strong enough to embrace the darkness. But for the moment, it’s better to play things safe. Take things for granted. Don’t ask too many questions. Just go along for the ride.
As I read a text from my younger sister in which she describes her struggles with anxiety, I am struck by her bravery. Imagine if something that you never even think twice about, maybe even something you enjoy, like booking a flight to a faraway country, suddenly begins to launch angry attacks against your peace of mind. What if every opportunity turned into a test, every loss a disaster, every worry a threat? Be humble. Happiness is a gift, not an accomplishment. Be kind. Suffering is a burden, not a failure. She’s such a good person. She has an insane amount of love in her heart. And yet she has been given, for no apparent reason, a heavy burden to carry. I don’t quite know how far I can go in this life. I’m amazed that I’ve made it this far. I’m terrified of losing everything. I’m terrified by the bottomless abyss that patiently awaits my eventual misstep. I see how terrible, how truly unbearable life can become. I see it all around me. I see it in the outstretched hands of the addicts who sleep outside my door. I hear it in the sirens that whistle past my bedroom window. I read it in the news, listen to it in the music, and watch it play out again and again and again on TV. I’m surrounded by it. Submerged in it. It takes everything I have just to stay afloat. Sometimes, the very best I can do is to block it out and pretend like everything is okay. Everything will be okay. And so I continue along, humming to myself, just trying to keep my heart light and my head held high. Everything, everything passes.