You’re Going to Die: A Children’s Story

By Timothy Furstnau (2000). Film by Dennis Palazzolo and narrated by Vito Acconci.

One day, you’re going to die.

Your life will just end, right then and there. You will be no more.

It probably won’t be pretty like in the movies or in fairytales. Maybe something extraordinary will happen, but probably not. Sometimes people have enough energy to say or do something meaningful right before they die. And that’s nice. But that is uncommon. Usually, people just die.

And you’re going to die, too.

Some people will say nice things to make you feel comfortable before you die. Others will tell you wild stories that say you’re not actually going to die. But those people are only nice, not honest. Because you really are going to die.

There are many ways to think about dying, different stories to tell and different things to think dying is like.

But death happens to people on the same way, no matter which way they think about it.

Everyone dies and is no more.

Because we are so good at making up stories and believing them, you may even begin to experience dying in a way that may fit one of your stories.

And that is okay.

But then you’ll die and it won’t matter what story you had. When you die, you won’t be able to see if your story was right or not, because there will be no story and no person to believe or compare stories.

You will be dead.

You won’t go anywhere and you will not even stay in the same place, because there will be no “you”.

There won’t be anything and there won’t be even nothing, because you won’t be there to feel that there is nothing.

There won’t be forever because you won’t be there to feel there’s forever.

You will be dead.

And you won’t be able to think; “Gee, I’m dead”. Because you can’t even think or feel or be anything besides dead when you’re dead.

Death can happen at any time.

Sometimes little babies die. Sometimes mommies and daddies die. And when people get too old, after they have had lot of life, they die.

And you’re going to die, too.

Sometimes it hurts when you die, and other times people don’t feel a thing. We only know what people say and do right before they die.

After you die, you won’t feel anything. Not even pain.

But people who are still alive when you die might hurt because you are gone. And that is ok.

People love other people and it usually hurts when people we love die. We even comfort ourselves with those stories that the dead person is not really dead. And that is ok too.

But of course, everyone dies.

And you will, too.

When you say, “I want this” or “I feel this”, you are talking about yourself… You might think yourself different from the rest of the world or you might think you are just a little part of the world. But when you die, yourself dies and so does your view of the world. So you won’t have a world or a self or any thoughts about either because you just won’t exist.

When you die, you won’t feel sad anymore, you won’t worry anymore, you won’t care about anything, or want anything. You won’t even enjoy being dead, because you won’t be anything, only dead.

That is why you should love life.

There are lots of things in life that seem bad, but since life only happens once, and there is only one “you”, love life while you can. No matter what happens.

If you feel sad, at least you can feel sad. If you are worried, at least you can be worried. You exist. You are alive.

If you love life this way, when it comes time to die, you will be happy because death is the perfect end to life. Life is only good because death ends it.

So live and love life…

Because you don’t even know how, when or why, but since you’re alive…

You’re going to die.

To find yourself, you need to stop looking

As long as I can remember, I have felt anxiety about my self. I know that I’m not alone.

That cliché about ‘searching for the meaning of life’ is one that I feel deeply. I was raised to think that I was special, and that I had some kind of higher purpose that was out there for me to discover.

But with no clear understanding of how I was special, or of what my purpose is, the result has been a life of ceaseless striving. The sociologist Max Weber described the Protestant work ethic as something that came about because Christians needed affirmation of God’s love. In the same way, I have sought recognition from others in a number of fields as affirmation that I am special.

At the same time, I refuse to accept affirmation because I feel like an imposter. Like I am pretending to be special rather than being special in myself. This pernicious cycle has turned me into a dilettante, cultivating just enough expertise in any given area to receive both (1) praise, and (2) an awareness that expertise in that area is not enough to provide me with that profound sense of purpose that I am looking for.

The problem here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the self. On the one hand, I’ve been searching for something essential about who I am, as if discovering my essence would give me clarity about the kind of meaningful work I should be doing in the world to fulfill my potential. On the other hand, amidst feelings of dissatisfaction, anxiety, and dread I have worried that these feelings are ultimately all that I am. The thought of being ‘freed’ from these hungry ghosts has been more terrifying than what I suffer from living with them.

What if I give up my fears and discover that there’s nothing left? (Sounds like a codependent relationship)

Learning about Buddhism recently has helped me to flip this problem on its head. The emptiness at the center of who we are is not something to be feared, but is rather something to be embraced.

I am not a thing that needs to be discovered. And I don’t have to worry that my happiness hinges on understanding some elusive meaning to my life.

Instead, I am at the ability to observe my mental states and ideas as experiences, and to welcome my hungry ghosts, not as parts of myself, but simply as friends along with all of the other experiences in my life. The ability to acknowledge that you are simply the ability to take yourself as another frees you to abstract yourself from negative thoughts, unproductive habits, and attachment to things over which you have no control. And it empowers you to accept responsibility for any actions you take in response, because every action now becomes intentioned.

I don’t have control over the thoughts and impulses that spring to my mind involuntarily. I do have control over how I choose to understand them, and how I choose to act in response.

What I take from Buddhism is that the ‘meaning of life’ consists in wisdom and compassion. For yourself, wisdom involves (1) understanding the nature of self as existential (something that acts and becomes) rather than essential (something that is in a way that is independent of experience), and (2) an awareness that anxiety comes as a result of attachment to things over which you have no control. In relationship with others, it involves compassion because we all share a longing for happiness as well as the ignorance, fear, and pernicious cycles that get in the way.

I’m not a Buddhist, but I do think that Buddhism (especially when considered philosophically rather than religiously) is a helpful lens for opening up new and helpful perspectives on the world and in one’s relationship to it. It is also extraordinary to observe how deeply it’s basic ideas about personal identity and the nature of the soul resonate with the Western history of philosophy, from the Stoics and the Skeptics, to the Italian Humanists, to Spinoza, Hume and Hegel, through Existentialism and Phenomenology.

The part of me that wants to think of itself as a unique snowflake with original thoughts resents the similarity in all of these thinkers and traditions. And that petulant child inside of me wants to reject these ideas simply because they are both unoriginal and increasingly popular.

But a bigger part of me takes comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my own struggle with meaning. And I am grateful to have these guides (and those I have yet to meet) seated with me as friends at the same table, along with all of my hungry ghosts.

NOTE: I am only at the beginning of my journey to understand Buddhism, just like I am at the beginning of my journey to understand anything. If you are more knowledgeable and see errors or opportunities for my thinking to be clarified or extended, please leave a comment and let me know.