Some months ago, my quite-small niece fell into an irrigation ditch and was pulled under a culvert and downstream. Her older brother, understanding his older brother-ly role, jumped into the water at the other end of the culvert and caught her. She was fine.
It’s not a shocking story. There are a lot of ways to kill humans, and many of them can happen very quickly. According to the World Population Review, there are about 26 deaths per minute worldwide. In some ways, we’re all walking on a rope bridge above death all the time; it’s just that most of the time we’re careful not to look down. But occasionally the wind blows harder or someone’s foot breaks through a board, and for a minute, our eyes slip and we see it. How close we are to the abyss, every day.
But for most of us, we don’t stay there. We look away quickly. Mortality isn’t generally a fun thing to contemplate, especially not the mortality of someone you love.
For some reason, this time, I chose to stay for a minute. I thought about it. I stared down the road of what could have happened, and if it had, what would have happened. What we would have done. How it might have affected my sister and the rest of her family.
Then I texted my husband and told him I’m not ready to have a mortal child.
But it’s too late. I have one.
She could die at any moment. Constantly. She will be capable of dying for the rest of her life.
And I can’t stop her.
I’ve heard parents say that it’s their job to keep their children safe, but I don’t think so. I mean in the way of teaching my toddler not to run into oncoming traffic, sure. But as an overall goal, no.
I think it’s my job to teach my daughter to live life well, and I don’t think a life lived in pursuit of safety is a life well-lived. Few things can be kept safe and also operate in the purpose for which they were designed at the same time.
And it’s not even possible. I cannot keep my daughter safe, not from everything all the time, and if I really try, I will become the thing from which she needs saving.
If you lock someone up to keep them safe from all the terrible things out there, are you their protector or are you their jailer?
And then it’s not even about her. Or not just about her. It’s everyone and everything.
Everyone I love is not only capable of dying, they’re just…going to. Loving people isn’t a risk. It’s a promise of loss.
And I know that this is where someone will want to insert the idea of heaven, like that fixes it. But I dare you to find someone who has experienced the death of someone close to them who will say it doesn’t feel like death and loss, regardless of how firmly they believe they will meet again.
This is not a new idea. Humans have been wrestling with our mortality for a long time. I’ve read about it, and thought about it, usually rather calmly.
Occasionally it felt less calm. Like when I realized my parents are going to die.
Sometimes I imagine that there are millions of little slots in my brain, designed for all the different bits of knowledge and wisdom in the world, but they’re not all ready yet. And until a specific slot is ready, it doesn’t matter how often I encounter the piece of knowledge – it just won’t click. I can hear it, or read it, and it’ll just sort of wander through my brain and then slip away.
Until one day it snaps into place, and then I think about it for weeks and weeks. And listen to Run by OneRepublic on repeat because bits of the lyrics are stuck in my head as part of the thinking about it.
It’s like a problem my brain wants to solve.
Everyone I love can, and eventually will, die. Everything I build can, and therefore something inevitably will, break.
And it won’t be a pleasant experience.
So what can I do about it?
I can love no one, build nothing. Of course it’s already too late for that, but I’m also not convinced it’s an actual possibility. Humans seem to be very bad at loving no one. Sometimes I also think we’re very bad at loving anyone consistently, but still, the attachment part is hard to avoid. And we all inevitably build something. Some kind of life. But even if we could somehow avoid it, even if I could find a way to exist without creating or loving, that would be only a different kind of tragedy. Not better.
Or I can die first. Before anyone I love can die, before anything I’ve built can break. But to do that, I’d almost certainly need to die quite soon, which means I’d have experienced only a very small piece of the human experience. It hasn’t been enough yet. I haven’t done enough, seen enough, tasted enough, learned enough. So again, it would still be a tragedy.
Avoiding the loss, even if it were possible, isn’t a good solution.
So then what?
This game is doomed.
People always die.
Empires always fall.
And here’s the thing about me: I like playing for keeps.
But if I can’t, then the only logical reason to play is if, somehow, the only thing worse than playing and losing is not playing at all.
If the value of this game is not dependent on its end.
If the value of this game exists in the playing itself.
And what if, instead of using its inevitably painful end as a reason not to play, or even to only play cautiously, I would do the opposite?
It’s all doomed. Everyone I love is going to die. Everything I build is going to burn.
It’s going to hurt like hell.
How must I live to make it worth it?