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How To Live Forever
It's the end of lives that make them matter. The trick is to seize that meaning now.
Note from the Future: What follows is another of my deep-cut essays from more than a decade ago — originally published at my old site on June 21st of 2012. I still wholeheartedly agree with everything in it … and that’s a damn good thing because in this essay I was 36, but I was 47 when I reposted it. Apparently time really does keep marching on. Who knew?
My grandfather died just recently.
It's okay, really. He was 94 years old. He'd been relatively mobile all of his life, very mobile for all but the last handful of years, chopped wood with an axe into his seventies, kept his mind, and kept his hair. He and my grandmother lived in their own house, and only now is she thinking (quite voluntarily) of moving somewhere a bit more controlled.
They were married for seventy years. SEVENTY YEARS.
She's doing fine, even now. There's sadness, of course, but it's tempered by inevitability. Even he was tired of being here. For a decade, although he was happy and kept a great sense of humor, he kept wondering why his time wasn't up yet. The mind kept on, he said, but the body betrayed him. It was a bummer.
He didn't suffer at the end. One day I heard that he was having some problems, and before I could make the trip to see him, he was gone. It was fast. It was inevitable. We all have to die, and as far as deaths go, I'd take it.
He lived 94 years and then he died. We focus on the death, but ultimately his death isn't what matters… because when he was alive, he actually lived.
He left behind a wealth of stories. Many are war stories. He repaired ships while those ships were still taking fire. He travelled the world. He saw the Enola Gay take off, though he didn't know which plane it was at the time.
Some of these stories I knew, and some I'm only just now learning.
If my grandfather were watching now, he could point to those stories, to the people in those stories, and to those events he participated in and shaped, and he could say, "Look: I was here."
Dust in the wind, dude.
Kansas sang that all we are is dust in the wind. And that's what it can feel like.
You are this person, you have this body, you have this identity, you do this job. You live in this house, you have this family, you file this tax return, you pursue these hobbies. On a population map, you're a tiny dot. On a bigger population map, you're lumped in with millions of others, just a millionth of a tiny dot.
Advertisements target "people like you." You're educated according to a system and you pursue a vocation according to your abilities. You receive payment for what you do, in an amount that’s more or less than the other people around you — who, though they may do different tasks, are all pushing the same basic wheel. You are told that you must earn so that you can spend, and you must spend so that you can have some small thing to do that you enjoy. You are told that you can do that thing you enjoy for a while, but then you need to go back and earn so that you can spend. So that you can do that thing you enjoy.
It's easy to feel like a mouse in a maze, only ever able to see the next turn.
Today is Thursday. Tomorrow is Friday. Even when you complete a week, it just starts over. You complete a year, and then that starts over, too. You do a job and the next day, it needs doing again. You get your hair cut, pay your taxes, mow the lawn, and buy groceries. But then, before you know it, you've got to do it all again. Nothing gets finished. The only thing you can put your finger on is that one day follows the next follows the next. Your job is to keep turning the pages.
It's easy to feel like dust in the wind, like we're here to go from one place to another and pull levers and push buttons.
It's easy to feel like the purpose of life is to get to the end of it. To have "completed one existence."
But you are not dust in the wind.
You are not your body or where you live or who you know, or even who you are.
You are what you choose to be. You are who you influence: how you make tiny, tiny parts of the world different, and better. Meaning is not defined by being. It is defined by doing.
If you do nothing, you are nothing. If someone could pluck you from existence and nothing would change, you've failed.
You are the sum total of your actions, words, and deeds.
You are the turbulence you leave behind you in the stream of time.
You are immortal
… if you want to be.
I just finished Stephen King's book 11/22/63. It's about a man who goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. In stories like that, someone always brings up the butterfly effect, so called because supposedly a butterfly flapping its wings can subtly influence air and weather, the aggregate eventually accumulating to become a hurricane halfway around the globe.
In time-travel stories, the butterfly effect says that tiny changes in the past might cause big changes in the future. Like how stepping on a bug in prehistoric times might cause Ned Flanders to become the unquestioned lord and master of the universe in the present day.
That’s sci-fi, but it's true … the butterfly effect. It's true in simple human relationships. My mother and father shaped who I became, who I'm still becoming. They guided my values and my attitude … but they wouldn't be who they are if not for their parents, and their parents wouldn't be who they are if not for their own. And that doesn't even take into account the many non-parental people I've met who've influenced me. And their parents. And their parents.
My wife and I met by the chancest of encounters. One minute of difference in our respective timelines and we wouldn't have met. My kids wouldn't be here. Whoever they go on to become and to influence wouldn't be influenced. And obviously, whoever those people would influence wouldn't end up influenced.
Remove one person from your distant past and your present would be dramatically different. Some people's absence would matter more than others.
The question, then, is: How much does your butterfly effect matter? If you’d been removed from history's equation, how different would the lives of those around you be?
If the answer is "not very much," you're doing it wrong.
Time ticks on, and you're only here for a blink. In one sense, you can't make a difference. But in another sense, you can make a huge difference … as long as you don't care about having direct line of sight, about being able to pinpoint the specific way in which you, specifically, will end up causing some yet-unknown thing. If you influence who you can, the truth is you'll probably never know what that might mean. But that’s not to say your actions won’t cause meaningful ripples in a thousand years, if you can learn to have a little bit of faith.
We can't live forever. Our memories can't live forever. The memories of those who remember our memories can't even live forever. You're kidding yourself if you think that history will remember you — specifically you — in a million years.
But that's very, very different from saying that you aren't shaping the future.
You influence people who influence people who influence people, and people you'll never know will be different because, ultimately, you were here.
You can live forever in aggregate — in small things that feed into anonymity and chaos — because of the butterfly effect.
Your challenge, should you choose to accept it
You know what death is? It's a deadline.
No pun intended.
You've been given an assignment. Your assignment is to make as much positive turbulence as you can before your clock runs out. Death is your timer buzzing: the boss asking for the completed assignment on their desk. Without the deadline, you'd never get the job done. Death caps our lives. It makes our lives complete.
There's a quote from Herodotus that says, "Call no man happy until he is dead." It means that the happiness of a person's life can only be judged, fully and completely, when it's over. Until then, the clock is still running and everything is still up in the air. The end of a life freezes it, allows it to be tallied and weighed. It's like Schrödinger's Cat. Until the experiment ends, the cat is technically nothing at all.
Think about this, because it's important: The fact that our lives end is exactly the thing that makes them relevant. Who wins a hockey game that isn't being timed? Nobody, that's who. It's only the end of the game that gives it any meaning.
Think about it.
The worst thing you can do on a deadline assignment is to forget that there's a deadline — to act as if the assignment will last forever.
We don't play hard (and we don't play for keeps) when there's all the time in the world. Just think how much harder the contestants on Supermarket Sweep shop than you do. Slacker.
The second worst thing you can do on a deadline assignment is to act as if the deadline is truly the end.
If you start to believe that, then all assignments, everywhere, become meaningless.
Say you want to raise a million dollars for charity by the end of the month. The end of the month arrives, and you've raised the million dollars … and then you get pissed off because it's over.
Nobody mourns the deadline of a project. The project was a vehicle. It's the beginning of something, not the end.
The results achieved during the project are what matters. The million dollars you raised is what then goes on and does more good even after the project ends and the fundraising committee goes home.
During the “assignment” called life, you're going to achieve some results and some outcomes. You're going to impact some people. Stir some shit up.
Then, when the deadline passes and your life’s assignment ends, those results and outcomes will only be beginning to twist and distort the timelines that flow out behind you.
This means that you — from your birth all the way through your death — are merely the start of something much bigger.
What does your life mean?
The most emotional moment at my grandfather's memorial was when the Navy theme was played. The second most emotional was when my grandmother was given a flag, folded into its distinctive triangular shape.
Those things are symbols of something greater. Something more. Those moments were powerful, interestingly enough, because they weren't actually about my grandfather. They were about something bigger, something he was a part of while he was alive. They were about nobility and sacrifice. Unity. Honor. One symbol with a thousand meanings to a thousand people.
If you want to feel some very serious emotion, go to a policeman's funeral. Go to a fireman's funeral. Go to a military funeral, especially one with a rifle salute.
Why are those funerals disproportionately moving? They were people. They probably had families. Likewise, the Office Drone in the funeral parlor across the street was a person. He had a family. The families of both will mourn, but even people who never knew the deceased will cry at a fireman's funeral because of the meaning they attach to a procession of fire vehicles, to soldiers in dress uniform saluting a hearse as it passes.
A person who doesn't shiver during a rifle salute or when Taps is played at a military funeral pretty much has to be ill or damaged. There's something about the symbols of tribute to those who sacrificed of themselves for others. You don't feel your emotions stir just for the dead. You feel them stir for the living. You see men and women at salute as if saying to the dead, This is what your actions meant to me.
At the end of a full, well-lived life, if you're moved by someone's death, it's not usually because you miss their physical presence as a person who happened to be there in the room. It's usually because you attach meaning to what that person did, and what they left behind. The strongest emotions aren't usually for the dead, but for those who live on. You don't mourn just the departed. You mourn the connection between the departed and those who remain.
Usually, what moves you is looking back on what that person did in the past, what you associate with them, and whatever memories you have. But the good news is that that part of them isn't going anywhere.
If your grandmother was a great influence for you when you were growing up, that influence is still there. You still are who you are.
If a man gave millions to charity and helped feed starving children, those millions are still given. Those children were still fed.
When someone dies, you can't forget what they did and what they meant. To do so — to focus on death instead life and meaning and difference and impact — is to negate the only part of them that lives on: the reason their life mattered to begin with.
Want to honor the departed? Then celebrate their lives.
My awesome funeral
I'm 36. With any luck, I've still got a lot of time on the clock. But in the interest of getting my wishes out there in fixed and tangible form so that those of you who know me can enforce my will when the time comes, here's how I want to be sent off.
I want to be cremated, and I'd like my ashes spread somewhere I loved, with said location to be decided at a future date or by my heirs. Because people like trinkets, I guess it's okay with me if select people want to keep some of my ashes. What do I care? It's just burnt wood and carbon.
I don't want a viewing. Because the memories and impressions I leave behind are my legacy, I don't want anyone's last memory of me to be some corpse lying in a box. A lot of people look at the body at a funeral and say, "That's not the same person," and I tend to agree. I am not my body, so don't mourn my body. Don't dress and parade my body around like a puppet show. I am my deeds. I am my actions. Address those, not the husk.
It's cool with me if there's a service, but let's keep the sadness to a minimum and let's not try to see how bummed out we can make everyone, okay?
A family friend had what I hear was the mother of all cool funerals. He died in his seventies and was a super-fun, super-funny guy. His funeral reflected that. Family and friends told their hilarious stories of him, salted with the bad jokes he used to tell. He was part of a band (I believe it was some sort of Dixieland affair) and that band played at the gathering. There were many shenanigans. There was some sadness and there were some tears, but by and large the service reflected the man and his legacy. The focus was on his life, not his death. And his life was awesome — his deeds and influence and stories still very much alive.
At my gathering (I hesitate to call it a "funeral"), you're allowed to be sad if you're so moved, but let's keep things in perspective. Was my life a net positive? I sure hope and think so. So let's focus on that.
There's enough crap in the world to feel bad about is it is. Let's not spend too much time bummed out by an assignment successfully completed and a deadline successfully met.
The universe gives a flying fuck about you
The most popular essay I’ve written is The Universe Doesn't Give a Flying Fuck About You. It's a good essay, but since there’s been a bit of confusion about it, I'd like to explain its meaning a bit more for those of you who are into that sort of thing.
The point of the "Universe" essay is to show you how big the universe is and how little you are in the big picture. It's not meant to be a punch in the face — just a reality check to make you stop worrying so damn much that every little “wrong” thing you do will cause widespread ruin. It's a "get over yourself and get off your ass" essay, plain and simple.
(Side note: Someone left me a review on that essay saying they liked it a lot but that they were downgrading their ranking because it made them feel small. To me, that's like downgrading your ranking of an otherwise fantastic horror novel because it scared you.)
Every once in a while, someone will challenge me on the message behind that post. They'll say that the universe does care, that we do matter, and that it's not all for nothing. And I'll agree. On the surface, the Universe essay is way too nihilistic for even me as its author. But deeper down, it’s not nihilistic at all. If you read the whole thing, with all the subtext, I think you'll agree.
My point wasn't that what you do doesn't matter, or that you're worthless.
My point was that if you ever want to live the time you have to live, you need to get over yourself. All eyes are not on you. Nobody will care if you try something and fail.
You know that Adam Sandler thing where he used to say, "They're all going to laugh at you?" It’s not true. Nobody's going to laugh, because nobody gives a shit.
The point of that essay was that since the Great Intelligence isn't watching your every move and waiting for you to screw up so that it can mock you, you might as well stop asking for permission to do that thing you want to do. You might as well stop living in fear. You only get so long to live, and you are very small, so do it up. Live, already.
That’s very different from saying you don’t matter. You do matter … if you choose to matter.
If you choose to stand up for what you believe in and do what you want to and should do.
If you choose to not just ramble through life, but to actually live it.
If you do those things, people will come to your funeral and they'll cry, but they won't be crying because you're gone. They'll be crying because they’re moved by what you did while you were here.
If you create turbulence, you'll have imparted change in the lives of others.
If you've influenced people, they'll influence others, and you'll live forever in the butterfly effect.
I'm sorry to break it to you, but one day, you are going to die.
The question is, how do you want to be remembered?
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