Last night I dreamed I was having a conversation with a ghost. Just some random girl who I don’t know in waking-life. She was pretty hot, actually, which I found a little weird, even in the dream. I forget exactly why I was talking to her… I was on an assignment to do something, and she knew information I needed, but it turned out she was dead so I went over to where her body was decomposing and she showed up and we just started chatting about stuff.
I remember having the distinct thought at one point in the dream, “I don’t want to die.” It was a little-kid thought. The thought that I think everyone has at some point in their childhood when they get the memo that someday they will end up as a rotting pile of animal matter, when they try to wrestle with what it feels like to be dead. I remember as a kid trying to imagine what it would be like to not exist, and getting scared and frustrated because of the impossibility of imagining the absence of my own consciousness.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m thinking about all of this right now, but I think partly it’s because I’m reading The Book of Not Knowing which is by this Zen-inspired martial artist about seeing past all the false layers of the mind and having direct experience of our “true nature”. In other words, really questioning and not taking anything for granted and seeing what’s there.
I’ve read a number of people who argue that the basis of personality, the seat of the “ego”, is fear of non-existence. That most of everything we are most of the time is this vast unconscious edifice built up to insulate our minds from the realization we have as children that our entire universe, everything we can conceive of, will come to an end in a shockingly short period of time. In Donnie Darko, the message Donnie receives from the rabbit is that the world is ending in 48 hours. The world doesn’t end from our vantage point, but it does from his. Who says our perspective is the correct one?
One of the ways we deal with this disturbing fact at the center of our personalities is by telling stories about the future. Here’s mine: “Someday, if I do the right thing and work hard, everything will come together and I’ll have everything I ever wanted and I’ll be happy.” Kind of lame, actually… in the old days, most people’s stories were about eternal bliss in heaven, which is much more imaginative and ambitious (in my story, I still haven’t explained why I won’t die!)
Oh you can’t get to heaven
(Oh you can’t get to heaven)
With peanut brittle
(With peanut brittle)
Because the Lord’s own teeth
(The Lord’s own teeth)
Will break a little!
(Will break a little)
Oh you can’t get to heaven with peanut brittle because the Lord’s own teeth will break a little, I don’t wanna grieve the Lord no more!
The problem is that these stories have a dark core, because at least somewhere in my mind, I’m thinking, “what if it ain’t so? what if I work hard and then get hit by a car? What if I never get there?” This is why people don’t like atheists.
Anyway, this is the truth behind cliches like “live for the moment.” It’s not that it’s all fun and happy and dancing panda bears in the here-and-now, or that you won’t have to put up with the consequences of your compulsive <insert-vice-here> in the future, it’s that really, right now is all there is. Life is just a succession of right nows, right up until the last one. I dunno if this actually changes anything practically. I still have dreams, and I feel like as much as those dreams are about wish fulfillment, they’re also about doing what I love, pouring out all the talent and grace within me before they shut out the lights. In a sense it almost makes things more urgent. If you have a song to sing, better start singing it or you might not get a chance to sing the last note.