Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” The fact remains that most people pass through life as if they were going to be here forever on this planet, with not even the slightest inkling that the present is a sieve through which the future falls into the graveyard of the past. Most also “learn” grudgingly as if the slightest chance of growing up through what you understand about yourself meant imminent death the next day; and therefore, it would be meaningless to spend your time in absorbing anything of value. The less than a half a million-dollar question is: how do I train myself to live with an intense awareness of who I am as if today were the last day of my life? At what point do I begin to appreciate what it is that makes life beautiful with a tinge of forever attached to the joy? These are not rhetorical questions meant for academic debates in classrooms or conferences. The responses to these questions could play a significant role in making one a little more sensitive to the value of individual moments that constitute the larger canvas of day-to-day life. Marcel Proust’s greatness as a writer rests on the fact that he used these single moments stretched upon a wide canvas for the world to see what they were missing in letting go of the present.
The phrase “struggle for existence” popularized by Darwinians in the 19th century in relation to the natural world is conveniently applied to the human world as if both are one and the same thing. A distinction has to be made between an animal attempting to survive in a jungle and a member of the human species who works in order to make a living. Unaware of its dying, an animal cannot give a framework guiding its actions. With the knowledge of mortality at the back of my mind, I, as a human person, am able to arrive at a deeper sense of what my life is all about. I am able to share this sense with others around me by giving words to my thoughts. I am able to write about this meaning to reach out to a larger audience. My struggle for life is not just to exist but to see how each passing day could be rendered more meaningful than the previous one.
Each night when I go to bed, who could assure me that I am going to wake up the next day? Why do I long for spring days in deep winter? Why does the thought of a world without me automatically bring tears to my eyes? Every time I have a heartbreak, why does it seem like I am experiencing a death-like sensation? How is it I never notice that every passing day takes a page out of my life? Why is it I invest my hopes in the future knowing full well it means coming closer to my end? How could life be meaningful if death is indeed the grand finale?
The question that matters the most to me as a human person is: how do I learn to die? I cannot make a question out of living because I am already alive and it seems thoughtless to ask a question about what I already am. And to the word “life” for too long have I attached the word “struggle” as if they are interchangeable terms. I am not suggesting that I don’t have to struggle to make it in life. I am simply saying I cannot make it look like life is nothing but struggle either. That would belittle the countless moments that bring me happiness and make me vouch for the sweetness of life.
Death and dying are seen as a negative condition opposed to living and life. That however is not the case. There is a continuum between the joy that comes with birth and the sorrow that leads to death. To recognize the continuum, it is essential for me to have a fulfilling existence. A great part of the fear of loving life without reservation seems to come in not allowing the thought of death from entering my head. However, by rejecting death or any of its manifestations such as illness, parting or separation, I make it impossible to do anything outside the routine I have created for myself. The routine is emerging from a fear of anything which comes close to giving me the feeling of dying.
What is it I could do to enhance my love of living which could manifest in daily things? In the movie Monsieur Verdoux (1947) the eponymous protagonist is proved to be a dangerous criminal and is sentenced to death. At the very end when he is walking towards the guillotine, Verdoux is offered rum which he at first politely refuses. Almost immediately he changes his mind and decides to have the rum saying, “I’ve never tasted rum.” In the Luis Bunuel movie, Nazarin (1959) which tells the story of a Christ-like priest, the main character Nazario is being taken to be shot dead by a guard. On his way the saintly man is offered a pineapple by an old woman on the street which he initially refuses, but then decides to take it.
In the cases of both the men, Verdoux and Nazario, there is something surprisingly similar. Both men are condemned to die for different reasons. At the very end of their lives, both are offered things that seem entirely without meaning in the face of death. The rum as well as the pineapple has no apparent significance to the dying men. Yet, both of them after first refusing will opt to take what is offered to them. The bottom-line is that the mere fact of dying does not make life any less desirable. On the contrary, if you are leaving this world for good, there is no harm in having the taste of rum or pineapple on your palate. It signifies a love of life for its own sake. The fact that they are dying in fact enhances the pleasure and beauty of the little things that make life purposeful.
One other thing, less obvious, is that both the men are not in love with death. In other words, they are not suicidal or for that matter prone to rejecting the world and whatever it has to offer. They are not dying because they stopped caring for life. Verdoux is a failed idealist who takes to a life of crime. Likewise, Nazario’s detachment from worldly things puts him at odds with a materialistic world where selfish goals matter. Their eventual death will come not because they stopped caring for people around them. Therefore, drinking rum and eating the pineapple stand for the fact that they continue to see life as meaningful even if they are not going to be around. They are intensely aware that life will continue in one form or the other irrespective of what happens to them. Their passing away does not mean the end of life on earth or the extinction of the human race. It only means the end of their individual selves.
A healthy all-embracing attitude towards life makes a difference because it contains within it seeds of awareness of one’s mortality. If I took seriously the fact that I am anyway doomed to die, then life ceases to be either desirable or meaningful. Everything becomes shallow and purposeless. You cease to fight for the things you love. In fact, you cease to struggle for anything at all sooner or later entering the comfort zone of routine where you are not threatened by the unfamiliar. You end up formulating sophisticated explanations on the dark and insecure world outside the comfort zone, most of which are derived from spending too much time in front of the television or the internet rather than meeting real people. What most people don’t realize is that being stuck to a routine does not save you from a possible mishap. People can experience all sorts of problems even when they are seated comfortably in their couches. Going out and taking a walk to get some fresh air is no more or no less threatening than encountering people on social media. To come across real faces is often refreshing because, as a human being, I feel the need for the presence of others like myself. It may not do a whole lot of good to see people all the time. But, knowing that the world outside has not stopped going on is as important as the earth revolving around the sun or the moon orbiting the earth. Just the sight of people going on with their lives can leave a nice feeling of familiarity which is more enlivening than what is happening on Facebook or Twitter.
Whatever might be the origins of the expression, “And, this too, shall pass away,” there is truth in the realization that there are very few things in life that should be taken seriously enough for one to have a complete breakdown. I could have both moments of excitement as well as moments when I feel horrible about myself. Lovers and partners might fail to understand us. Friends might be absent in the moment when I am desperate for a sympathetic ear. Parents might be too distant to comprehend our feelings and neighbors visibly uninterested in our problems. Whatever the reason for the isolation, the thought that the situation you are trapped in is not forever is an important one. A positive outlook on mortality enables one to see a limit to everything no matter how good or how bad.
A sense of learning to be moderately happy or moderately sad is the right attitude to life. But, such an attitude could come from a sense of learning to look at death as a reality for all living beings and not something that should be feared or rejected. In the end I need to leave the world with the feeling that I have lived. How do I do that is the million-dollar question that each one needs to ask for him or herself.
A simple test will suffice on a daily basis to reveal the sincerity of our feelings. Make mental notes of what you do and the responses to your actions without taking anything or anyone for granted. Observe yourself with clinical precision as if you were watching a complete stranger. At the end of the day make a rough estimate of how much of the time spent from dawn to dusk has been productive to you as a person. In what way have your actions contributed to an honest evaluation or appreciation of who you are? To what extent do you feel that you have lived for that particular day in your life? To what extent can you confidently tell yourself that your sense of life is significantly enhanced by your actions?
Routine behavior or habitual ways of doing things betray the true story of how much of invaluable time is lost in pettiness and pointlessness. The conformity that comes with habit is dangerous because it prevents us from having a true perspective on ourselves. It is only when I have come out of that conformity brought about by subservience to routine and a false sense of comfort, that I am looking at life in the eye. I neither fear facing the truth nor refuse to recognize the value of the time given me to make each of those moments memorable in a zillion possible ways.
Learning to die is the beginning of living. I learn to die in the moment when I become extremely careful in placing the use of time above everything else. Time is the greatest gift that can be given to anyone, including oneself. How do I use this gift is the question that needs to be inquired into? In recognizing that at the end of each day, millions of cells in my body have perished bringing me one step closer to the grave, I learn to be respectful of life around and begin to care for people and things. There is always enough reason to be upset about something or the other. A boss could have thrown a tantrum with you in the vicinity. Your car might have had a flat tire or you missed the train exactly on the day you planned to throw a surprise party for your partner. You could wake up with a headache or a flu on a day that happens to be the day of your interview. Life can be infinitely frustrating for no good reason at all. At the point when you are convinced that things couldn’t get worse you need to remember that you are still very much within a mortal frame and that whatever happens is bound to pass.
There is an inevitability to how changes take place in any normal human life. I am not always in a position to control the change. What I am in a position to understand however is that those changes are not intimidating to someone who has learnt to live in the moment that he or she has also learnt to die. I learn to see the meaning in simple things and how to take pleasure in simple joys. The taste of rum or pineapple is enough to put me in a great mood for the rest of the time at my disposal.