Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Threshers in the Grain

I am an anxious existentialist. I arrived here reluctantly, but am quietly resolute, without proud convictions or comfort in belief. I understand death as a kind of erasure, final and empty, a soft smudging-out, then nothing.

(I sometimes imagine death smells like cold perfume, at least at first - insistent, with designs to be subtle but cloying instead, like Easter lilies and alcohol. Maybe that's why I find the over-air conditioned shopping malls of summer so oppressive.)

I once thought people who subscribed to this brand of thought might live with a sense of freedom, a sort of resignation-come-liberation: if nothing matters, then there's nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, I am not one of this ilk (or maybe fortunately - I would most likely be an asshole). In fact, I do quite the opposite. I worry constantly. When I can't busy myself with distraction or am not tired enough after giving priority to the details of daily life, insomnia and fear of oblivion blend into a nighttime mental paralysis. I often envy the solace some find in their faiths, but sometimes I desire doubt. After all, reincarnation sounds so pleasant. An Elysian afterlife appeals to me enormously. But I can't accept them. I asked too many questions for my Roman Catholic heritage to handle and so I abandoned most of its trappings after my first Confession, although I have a lingering fondness for its rich ceremony and colorful aesthetic. (I wore St. Christopher around my neck when I surfed and sometimes even now, but only then for misplaced cultural longing, and now, out of nostalgia. I often wear a St. Benedict medallion from Mexico tied loosely around my wrist, dangling from a strand of clay beads the color of rust after rain, but I don't believe it will ward off evil - although I wish it could ward off indecision. Curios that catch my eye in crowded markets hold no special power; I imbue these trinkets with nothing to worship but second-hand sentimentality.) I don't have the confidence or selfishness to entertain solipsism, and I find most religions too myopic, too limited in scope to satisfy me. Instead, I pick and choose the values I find valuable and collect them as tools to navigate whatever I encounter, too practical or paranoid to harvest from only one crop. None of them, however, change the ending of the story.

Momento mori, and all that.

I have a long-held affection for Rosencrantz's simplistic, rambling thoughts on the matter (although, unlike myself, he seemed rather nonplussed about it):

"Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, laying  in a box with a lid on it? Nor do I really. Seems silly to be depressed by it. I mean, one thinks of it like being alive in a box. One keeps forgetting to take into account that fact that one is dead. Which should make all the difference. Shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d never know you were in a box would you? It would be just like you’re asleep in a box. Not that I’d like to sleep in a box mind you. Not without any air. You’d wake up dead for a start and then where would you be? In a box. That’s the bit I don’t like frankly. That’s why I don’t think of it. Because you’d be helpless wouldn’t you? Stuffed in a box like that. I mean you’d be in there forever. Even taking into account that fact that you’re dead, it isn’t a pleasant thought. Especially if you’re dead really. Ask yourself: if I asked you straight off I’m going to stuff you in this box right now– would you rather be alive or dead? Naturally you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lay there thinking well, at least I’m not dead. In a minute somebody’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out. (knocks) "Hey you! Whatsyername! Come out of there!" [...] Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. It must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory like that. And yet, I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we knew the word for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squaling…with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there’s only one direction and time is it’s only measure."

Quickly-derailing trains of thought like this are why I lie awake at night, fretting over nothing – or, nothingness. There are things my tiny human brain cannot ever comprehend, only entertain (like space - I can't even). I am not equipped with the ability to encompass such notions without a very primal fear kicking in, and kicking hard. Yet I kick back. I kick and scream and wish I could squeeze these oceans of thought – the kind thousands of better-qualified philosophers have pondered before me – into droplets small enough to seep in.

I am a scared little field mouse, wishing she couldn't see the threshers in the grain.

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