We can’t be happy in the stream of time, and we have no home outside it. It is the element that we swim and drown in. A blissful afterlife would have to be timeless, not interminable, since time itself is the chief of our afflictions. To be sentient is to fall into time. If we lacked the presentiment of time, we would be spared three quarters of our woe. Time may heal your wounds, but it will break your heart. We are crushed by how long our tribulations last and how soon our life will close. Our pointlessness is confirmed both by life’s transience and by its length.
Time is the best of our possessions and the worst of our troubles. It is both the prison and the key.
Sleep is such a relief to us, because it is a brief suspension of the torments of time.
Better a short life of misery than an unrelenting ecstasy. A life without end would be hell. Any heaven would have to be brief. Our fragile bliss would soon buckle beneath the weight of all time. A soft night falls on the ones who have gained pardon, and they are free to go to their rest. ‘He giveth his beloved sleep.’ The poor can at last throw off the burden of existence which has pressed so hard on them. It is the saints who are sentenced to perpetual life as a punishment for their spiritual presumption. Pray for those you love, that they might slip through God’s net and not be cast panting and flapping on the bank of forever.
How long the years are, and how quick they go. How short life is, and how long it lasts. It slips from your fingers before you know what you’ve got. We are here for such a brief stay. We stage a short rowdy interlude in the everlasting dumb show, and then reel headlong back into the night. Life is a brief turbulence roiling the boundless ocean of eternity.
Might not the same be said of living as Johnson said of dying, that the act of living is of no importance, it takes so short a time?
The shortest-lived genius finds time to bring the amplest work to completion. Yet the lengthiest span is too short to house our yawning aimlessness. Life lasts long enough for the few who know how to put it to its right use. ‘We always have enough time, if we will but use it aright,’ as Goethe comments. How little we make of so long a life. And what brief lives the busiest of us cram into the length of our days. Our real life fills almost as short a stretch of our being here, as our being here fills of all time.
Life is too long to be happy, and too short to matter. But its brevity sets us free to dare, and its duration gives us the scope to make some abiding thing of our daring. How could you spend it in the quest to trace its gist if it weren’t to end so soon? If it stayed longer, you would have to waste each minute to build up a durable position and prosperity. If it didn’t fly so fast, you might have more chance to find the truth, but how could you give it a welcome? And how could you stand up to truth’s annihilating radiance, if your long sleep weren’t soon to swaddle and cradle you in its soothing gloom? How could we bear up under the spurns and ravages of time, if time in its mercy didn’t sweep us through them so expeditiously? When you know that you are doomed to die, how could you bear to live, if you weren’t drugged by your illusions? Yet how could you endure the truth, if you weren’t sure that death would spare you from enduring it for too long? We can bear to go on living because we know that we are soon to die, yet how could we bear to go on living if we believed it for real?
Life lasts long enough, but each day is too short. And yet, as Colton wrote, ‘many who find the day too long think life too short.’
Life, like a bad epigram, makes up for in brevity what it lacks in depth.
We let the hours leak away by crushing each minute to yield its use. We strive to squeeze the good from each moment, and so we drain the hour of its magic. We are penny wise and pound foolish with both time and truth.
We are always in a rush because we place no value on time.
We can live only in time, but the best use that we can make of our time is to kill it.
There is no greater evidence of our degrading dependence and futility than waiting, and we spend most of our life waiting for things that will never come.
Nothing but this minute is real, and that is the one time that we are too distracted to live in. We can live neither for the here and now nor for eternity. We inhabit neither the instancy of the beasts nor the timelessness of the gods. As soon as we wake to consciousness, we cease to live in the moment, and are condemned to live in time. We will go to any length so as not to live for today, even write vain exhortations to urge others to do so. May this instant go on and on receding, so that we will never have to live. It’s always just in the future that we will begin to live in the present.
How could we live for the here and now, when we start out as children who spend all their time waiting to grow up?
When our life is in danger, we do our utmost to keep at bay what threatens it, so that we can go back to our old ways of keeping life at bay.
Only those who have great reserves of time can afford to make each second count. Those who have too little must waste it in a race to reach some goal that they have not had the patience to test the worth of.
Death is time’s pyrrhic triumph, which at last untangles us from the ties of its odious tyranny. Death frees us from the outrages of time and loss. Time binds us in such coils, that dying is the one thing that can unlace them.
Life is a spume playing for an instant on unfathomed oceans of death. Like enchanted swimmers, we drown, and cease to feel the tumult of the years as they roll above our heads. ‘A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday.’
We have so short a time, that we don’t want to squander it doing what is worthwhile. The more time that we waste on an undertaking, the more certain we are that it is not a waste of time. As time runs out, we grow more impatient with the essential, and more infatuated with the ephemeral. As the world alters more and more hurriedly, our horizons stay as circumscribed as ever.
Life is too precious not to hazard. ‘It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another,’ as William James said, ‘that we live at all.’ But how could we aspire to anything great, now that life is too good to risk? Our being is now inviolate, so we can no longer stake it for the ends that might give it meaning. We can only hoard and pamper and multiply it.
Would the courageous risk death so lightly, if love of glory didn’t lead them to hold life so cheap? Like Yeats’s irish airman, the years to them seem ‘waste of breath.’ Death is not what they stake. It is what they win in compensation if their bet fails to pay off. ‘Oh well, at least there’s always death,’ Napoleon used to say, and kept a vial of poison in his pocket, just in case.
Death lends life a delicious irresponsibility. It makes all possible, since it makes you strong to dare, ‘finite to fail, but infinite to venture,’ as Dickinson put it. If you weren’t to lose life so soon, how could you wager it so lightheartedly? The grave limits the stakes, and so sets you free to gamble. It’s an ungrudging insurer that underwrites all your risks for the single down-payment of your life. The nearness of death makes life not worth not hazarding. If life’s so brief and death’s the end, why do anything? But since life’s so brief and death’s the end, why not do something perilous and glorious? Life is worth just so much as what you chance it for. Why not lay it as a wager in a game with eternal oblivion?
Dying is so poor a play, how could it rate a rehearsal? Living is a sickness which is not worth a laborious cure. It will heal itself soon enough, though we should at least abstain from passing it on to taintless victims. Those who, like the stoics, strive to overcome their dread of dying don’t foil it but surrender to it before it’s come. If death is nothing, then why waste all your strength in preparation for it? Why live a long funeral because your light is bound to go out one day? How could this negligible tenure deserve the effort of such a wearisome redemption?
There are many things more terrible to lose than life. And how terrible that you can lose them all, and still go on living. ‘In this world,’ as Chamfort said, ‘the heart must break or else turn to brass.’ Why are we so loath to leave this world in which all that is worth keeping has long since left us? We stay in the game, because we have the gambler’s knack of remembering our one or two small strokes of good luck and dismissing all the rest.
Each of us is smirched by the stigma of surviving, to which we give the complacent name of providence. With what subtle craft our coarse egoism convinces our grief that we have a sacred duty to go on. God, we say, is a god of the living, not of the dead. I know that I am one of the chosen, since I live on when the better ones, the few who deserved to survive, have met their end, and when so much sweetness has turned to dust. After all that agony and all that beauty, the world goes on as it has always done, brutal, distracted, indifferent to the ruin of so much delicate loveliness. It will keep accruing till it has lost it all.
Our resilience is a reproach to us. We spring back from each of our shocks, because we are so attached to our own gains and so unconcerned with the woes of others. We jauntily live down the loss of each principle or person that made life precious. Like Henry James’s Lord Warburton, we don’t die of it, but we do worse, we live to no purpose. Why wait to droop? Jump instead. ‘When your work is done,’ Lao Tzu advised, ‘then withdraw.’
You win your happiness when you light on some impersonal mission which gives scope to your most personal desires. Large achievements are totally egoistic but rise above all self. Life gains its victories by a ceaseless selfish self-sacrifice. Our devotion draws its force from the selfish energy with which we fuel it.
Better to burn the self to a crisp in some arduous and fiery quest, than starve it by a juiceless and lingering asceticism. It’s not worth effacing, but it is worth expending. Why strain nature to abnegate a thing so paltry? The self is worth annulling, but not usually for one’s fellow selves.
The self-spending that makes some of us futile makes others fertile.
You affirm your self most powerfully and permanently by surrendering it for the sake of some better end. You enlarge it by sacrificing it for the rest of the men and women in whom it will continue to live and who will continue to live through it. You inhabit a more extensive being, for which you have no more need of your self as it now is. Like the athenians overrun by the persians, you quit your land to preserve your country.
What more worthy end can we aspire to than a grand futility? How glorious of the easter islanders to squander it all and leave some marvel for the time to come, rather than live on soberly bereft of a name. How fine, to take your life in your hands, and fling it at the stars. What matter that the violin will soon be smashed, so long as it has played the one blest hour of immortal music it was made for. Better to blaze for an instant than to sputter for an age.
The most bitter martyrdom is to give your all and find that no one wants it.
4 Loss on loss
Life is a losing game. Either it all leaves you as you go through it, or it all leaves you at the end, and you have no more left to lose. It’s just loss on loss, even when you feel sure that nothing could touch you. It’s a bad bargain, which no one would go into with their eyes open.
We wait like refugees at an abandoned station. Not one thing that you hoped for will arrive now, and nothing that has gone is coming back. We can number our days by all the things that they have torn from us.
As we age, grief and ruin swell to form the throbbing bass on top of which we carol our ecstatic melodies of desire and delight. ‘A wounded deer leaps highest,’ as Dickinson wrote. Life’s torpid stream now jets in rapture, now swirls in a vortex of sweltering misery.
How do we go on, but by dismissing from our mind from one moment to the next how much the years have gouged from us and the dismal lessons that they have taught us? Our brains would split, if we believed each day and hour the things that we know to be true.
It’s not hard to lack. But it’s killing to lose. It is, as Pascal says, ‘horrible to see all that one possesses slipping away.’ It may be easy to renounce success, but it’s tough to live without it.
Even if life passes you by, it will still knock you down in its rush. It’s as sickening as the stink of souring garbage from the lorry as it trundles past.
What we try to hold on to tells us how soon we will have lost it. What we remember ought to teach us how quickly we will be forgotten. The grass will stay green on our tombs long after the tears of the few who loved us have dried. ‘What love was ever as deep as a grave?’ asked Swinburne.
We hoard so much, yet we are never happy. We forfeit so much, yet we still fail to despair. Is it more horrendous to glimpse how much we have to lose in life, or how comfortably we go on living, when we have lost so much? Our hearts are lightly rent and lightly mended. They’re lowlands which are deluged by flood on flood of grief but which will dry out too soon. ‘So we have to go on alone in the night,’ Céline wrote. ‘We’ve lost our true companions, and we didn’t ask them the right question, the real one, when there was still time.’
Life gives you nothing, and then takes it all back again. ‘The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,’ as Tichborne wrote. We are born with nought, and it takes us our whole life to lose it. In its cruel game you forfeit a thousand times more than the beggarly stake that you lay. And it’s those who get least that have the most to lose. They live on as shell-shocked tremblers amid the rubble of their bombed-out life, and are dragged along by the unravelling catastrophe of their defeat. The longer I live, the less I own, yet the more I let slip from my grasp. ‘Life’s empty pack is heaviest,’ as Dickinson well knew.
When you’re down to your last cent, you still have everything to lose. When you have just one hour left, you still have your whole life in front of you. And those who have made nothing of their life still have it all to lose at the end.
Why fear to die, when you have already buried such a long queue of your dead selves? It’s just the last and least valuable of them that you will soon be interring.
The years fret us like a horrid nightmare troubling a long and dreamless sleep.
We can bear the vanity of life, because we know that it will soon pass. Yet most of us feel sure that it would not be vain if only it went on for ever. We are such abject prisoners of time, that we assume we would prove its worth if a few more years were appended to our sentence. Death will make a fittingly futile close to my futile and trivial life.
Life rages like fire, and vanishes like smoke. Our years scud like the gusts of wind rustling through the trees. There will soon be no trace that they once blew so high.
We are nothing. And if we were immortal, we would be no more than immortal nothings.
We are all sure that we will be resigned to die some tomorrow, so long as it is not this tomorrow. However late it gets, we don’t see that it’s time to go. As Nietzsche said, our last duty is to learn to die at the right time.
We are rats in a maze scurrying to locate the way out but forbidden to take the nearest one. But far more effectually than any buddha we will soon make a lasting release from the cycle of birth and death by snuffing out all sentient life for good. The salvation that our cursed species brings this earth will be a universal extermination. Life is an evil machine. Our consciousness has cranked it up to such a pitch of restless frenzy, that it will soon break its springs. Our wisdom has not found a way to make the wheel stand still. So our avarice will set it spinning so fast that it will burst into flames. Our cruel breed will grant a merciful deliverance to the earth that it has persecuted so unmercifully. Our noisy kind will soon bring a dead quiet to the deafened globe.
Our preference for a planet teeming with life may be a mere prejudice in favour of what piques our interest by mirroring us. Life is a mere local and temporary infestation on an out of the way planet. Earth is no more beautiful than Saturn or Jupiter.
The kind old earth will soon wash off the deep stain of our failure and burn up the cheap idols of our success. Death will black out the sad record of our derelictions. An afterlife would taint the whole of time with them.
We would have grounds to complain of death’s unfairness, if there were some who died and some who did not, and if we were among the ones who did not.
We waste all our days clambering up the arduous summit of nonentity. We make a brief transit from one eternal void to another. And when we reach our end, as Khayyam wrote, the phantom caravan will have returned to ‘the nothingness it set out from.’ After such deep defeats, to die seems a victory that we dare not dream of. The one sure success that you can hope for in this dispiriting world is to get out of it. But the one drawback of being dead is that you don’t know how lucky you are. Life is a bewildering riddle with an appalling solution. And the sum of all our various equations makes an invariable nought. Better not to have been set the puzzle or not to have found the answer. ‘Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.’ Is it worth the trouble of being born, just to learn how much better it is to be dead. Does it repay all that you have to expend just to score a zero? What fires of affliction you have to pass through to find your way back to the emptiness from which you emerged. Miles of pain still to go. After all those years of unpaid misery, nature owes us a death.
How good of God to give us life. And how much more gracious of him to take it back so soon.
We are virtual particles, generated out of nothing only to return to nothing after a brief instant of vain commotion.
Extinction is the worst we have to fear and the best we have to hope for.
Things last longer than we do. ‘The best vitality cannot exceed decay,’ as Dickinson wrote. A living thing is one that decays sooner than one that is not living. The poet has a crimson vitality, the poem wins a brief pale deathlessness.
Dying is a hateful way by which to leave this hateful life. It still costs us so much to let go of this life which has cost us everything. Life is odious because it ends in death, and death is odious because it puts an end to life.
You live on in the grave as you do above it, only in the minds of others. ‘A shade,’ says Hardy, ‘but in its mindful ones has immortality.’ You exist in life a wisp more substantially than you do in the tomb. You are just harder to ignore.
Death accompanies me as the hooded third on all my expeditions. Wherever I trek, it trails me. Where I lodge, it makes its home in me. It’s at work in me now, like ants in a nest, silent, unseen and inexorable.
Life is a cheap gaudy mask covering the gaunt face of death.
Why are we punished by being born, before we have perpetrated any crimes? And why are we then reprieved by dissolution, once we have committed such gross ones?
If life were not so weighed down with pain, how could you bear it to end? And if you weren’t sure that it was bound to end, how could you bear up under all its pain?
Some people find life so sweet that they hope it will go on for ever, and some find it so bitter that their worst fear is that it might.
Some people find peace and comfort in the hope that they will live on for all time. And some have been so bruised by life’s cruel reversals that they’re soothed by the certainty of death, when they know that they’ll be ‘not happy now, but safe from ancient sorrow,’ as Leopardi wrote. Death may cast a pall on your joys, but at least it shades you from being scorched by the pitiless sun of immortality. Life with the prospect of death is bad enough. Without it it would be intolerable.
How sweet is death to one who is sick of running but can’t bear to sit still. How bitter is life to one who is sick of running and yet can’t bear to die.
The good die young, sickened by how like they have grown to the dry conniving world. What other reparation do they get in this land of refusals? As Wordsworth wrote, it’s those whose hearts are parched as summer dust that burn to the socket.
I take no thought for my own death, since it seems so far from me. And I don’t mind the deaths of others, since they are so far from me. And yet even for the most self-centred of us another’s end has more solemnity and substance than our own. Theirs has the faraway resonance of fiction, while my own means no more than sorry life.
You go to join the great majority by the loneliest road.
The dying have no more tears to shed.
We are all dying, some too quick, and some too slow.
We are passengers on board a deathward flight, and the best we can do now is scramble to grab a more comfortable seat.
At times it seems so rich to die, that you regain the relish to go on with your insipid life. Life derives its zest from what Whitman termed ‘the delicious nearby freedom of death.’
Death won’t end the things that have true worth. And what it does end grows more precious by its ending. ‘’Tis death,’ wrote Browning, ‘that makes life live.’ The finest goods are also the frailest. Its highest aspirations make life more exhilarating and more endangered. If it were not so vulnerable, what value could it have? How sweet death’s bitterness makes each second seem. How bright all things look in its shadow. If only we could attain in dying the grace of leaves, which float, dance and fly as they fall. But we are too heavy for such poise.
6 What death will teach
Life discloses to us so few of its secrets, that we hope that dying will yield up all its last clues. But when it comes, you’ll be so busy finishing, that you’ll have no time to ponder it, and you assuredly won’t get the chance to catch its drift once it’s passed you by. Jesus or Lazarus seem to have come back no wiser from their stay in the grave. Why would you learn more by expiring than you do by nodding off to sleep?
We come into the world like children waking fretful and bewildered in an unfamiliar room. All our struggles to speak our condition are the anxious wailing of a baby trying to lull itself back to sleep. We reenter the void having found our rightful habitation, which we still fail to recognize as our own. Life is a brief and troubled exile from our long home.
We cower in a perpetual state of emergency, and so we submit to a permanent suppression of the truth. A spool of distracting urgencies chokes our life, and dying will come as our last crisis, to repress the final truth. If the years have frightened you into self-deception, why would the threat of dissolution embolden you to face the truth? When we have fought so long to stay true to our lies, why would we part with them just when we need them most?
However near death comes to us, it keeps far from our thoughts. If we ever think of it, we do so as we think of the snow and sleet when we are warm indoors, to add to our comfort by the contrast. Even in its unnerving gloom we still stay brightly frivolous. ‘Our thoughts always lie elsewhere,’ as Montaigne says. We dread the passage, but can’t fix our minds on the terminus. We can’t focus on it long enough to fear it. Why would we think of it when we’re young and it’s so far from us? And how could we bear to think of it when we’re old and it’s so close? Probably most of us never have our hearts more set on the world than when we are on the cusp of departing it, ‘insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal,’ as Shakespeare wrote of an inmate on death row. We fret more at how our corpse will be handled than at how our naked soul will fare in gaping eternity. Even as I drown, the sunbursts on the surface of life’s shimmering cesspool still dazzle my eyes.
Will dying come as our last distraction, to deflect our thoughts from the desolation of death? Do the dying, like the living, dread not the last thing but only the next thing? Do we die as we lived, perplexed, fraught with hope, not quite aware of what has befallen us? Our going will be made of the same stuff as life, trivia, banality and delusion. If we are lucky, death will find us before we have found out who we are. We will have turned back to dust, before we learn that this is all we have ever been. Death is the point at which our nothingness can at last rest from pretending to be something. ‘When we dead awaken,’ Ibsen wrote, ‘we’ll see that we have never lived.’
It’s only for those still in the midst of life that death is a poignant thought. For the dying it is one last disagreeable chore to be got through.
Death is the one serious and solemn thing that happens to us, and most of us are not there for it.
The noose is right now tightening round our neck, as we scan the heedless crowd for some fresh prospect of joy. ‘The pang preceding death,’ as Goldsmith wrote, ‘bids expectation rise.’
Why would dying bear witness to who we authentically are, when it transforms us irrecoverably into what we are not?
What use have the dying for last words? It is we who live on in this world of cheap anecdotes and chat that feel called on to make them up.
Something unspoken goes out of the world with each one of us at our end.
7 After life
We are the only animals that know we are doomed to die, and so we duly conclude that we are sure to live on for all time. We are beset by deathless yearnings, but blessed with merely mortal capacities.
We insist that we must be immortal, as one last vain assertion of our egoism to counter the vast blank indifference of the universe.
If we were never to die, would we not feel still more need of the undying name won by lustrous deeds? A god craves glory even more greedily than a hero. Would we bear our lack of ever-living fame so lightly, if we had to bear it longer than this brief hour on earth?
We have died and been reborn so many times in the course of our days, that we infer that we will never die for real. As hope has lived on through the demise of each of my hopes, won’t I live on through my last death?
We all die alone. But some of us are kept company to the last by our bright complacency and by that deathless self of ours which we trust will continue to inhabit and delight the admiring world.
For the makers death is no refutation. They lit out long ago, and what they leave for death is trash. Then they wake to live their real lives, unburdened of the day to day distractions of pain and joy.
Death saves alive those who have made a lasting work and aimed at more than mere happiness. It will raise up the ones who lived beyond life. It’s not a leveller, but comes to set fast the rift dissevering the few who have done great things from the rest of us, who did no more than live and so can do no more than die. The life goes out, the work remains. ‘The great use of life,’ as William James said, ‘is to spend it for something that will outlast it,’ but now we waste it to swipe our share of money and fun.
Each of us knows that we live for all time, since all time lasts just as long as we live. As Twain joked, ‘by forever I mean thirty years.’ Suicides know that their life will go on interminably, if they don’t put a stop to it this day.
Ours is the one species that can form an idea of eternity, and then shrink it to a few hundred years of fame. We want to live for ever, though we don’t much mind how long forever will last. How droll to hear such beings of an hour throwing around big words like immortality as if they bore some reference to their own brief span. ‘Immortality,’ as Hazlitt says, ‘means a century or two.’ The longest afterlife in the minds of others will stave off perpetual oblivion for a mere moment. It is obscurity and not glory that will last till the end of time. Memory lives for a bright instant. Forgetting will stretch out everlastingly. ‘For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever.’ One day soon, when all are quite forgotten and all the names are lost, I’ll be Shakespeare’s equal. His glory will take an age to catch up with my anonymity. Time, having winnowed wheat from chaff, will soon burn both in one common fire. ‘Laurel outlives not May,’ as Swinburne wrote. Humanity’s illustrious exploits and memorials are spewed from the whirlpool of all-devouring time, to be sucked back down a second later. But we know that art is mortal and love frail. And so we blush to cavil when poets claim that art is eternal or makes time stand still, or that love conquers death and that what will survive of us is love. What will survive of us is so little, and soon nothing at all. Our works may defy time as much as they like, but time will at last defeat them. Life is brief, art is a fraction less so. It’s not immortal, and won’t make us immortal. It seems to suspend the moment for no more than a moment.