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Death and Why I Fear It:
Knowledge, Creativity, and Time

A Modern Sisyphus

Thomas Larsen

I was born into a finite world that floats along the galactic plane somewhere between the billions of other stars in the Milky Way and the countless other galaxies that make up our corner of the universe. Though vast and nearly infinite, the universe is technically knowable. Given enough time, technology, resources, ingenuity, courage, and so on, this universe could be known. Its mysteries and secrets, its beauty and its horror are all knowable, comprehensible, discoverable if only we had time.


I don’t know enough about the universe to know all that I don’t know, but there are things that I don’t know, that are knowable, that I want to know. Though I spend my time reading and looking and thinking and imagining, my discoveries are but the tiniest fraction of a fraction of our tiny sliver of this unimaginably vast universe. 


I was asked by a friend recently if I fear death, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. The idea of no longer existing is troubling for many reasons, not the least of which is that all you know and love will cease to be. My main trouble with it is that it means I will never know all the things I want to know. I will never discover the things I want to discover. I will never see what I want to see, hear what I want to hear, or feel all that I want to feel. 


If I die, my children will go on with their lives, they will have good and bad memories of me, though they will mostly reflect on the good if they reflect at all. My wife would be sad and lonely without me but she is strong and full of life and will go on. I trust that everyone in my life would be okay without me, so I do not fear this aspect of death.


But, I want to know about life on other planets. I want to know the ultimate reaches of humanity. I want to experience better, more efficient forms of government. I want to see the world solve global warming, defeat disease once and for all, and find peace within our species and the greater ecosphere. I want to experience the lakes and rivers and rain on titan. I want to see if we ever terraform Mars or Venus, how our presence on the moon changes society. I want to know that wars will cease and death will stop haunting the dreams of children in every country the world over. I want to know that we are capable of caring enough as a species for the world and its inhabitants that we are willing to sacrifice for their survival. I want to hear the harmony between man and nature reach its apex in a world where man, machine, and nature find a healthy balance. I want to reach deeper into our minds to understand how and why we work the way we do. I want to taste the world’s cuisine and hear the world’s music. I want to know all there is to know.


So this is how I feel about death. I don’t fear whatever pain I might feel leading up to it. I don’t fear what will happen to my loved ones when I’m gone, I don’t think I actually fear death itself at all. Rather, I mourn the loss of further potential, the end of learning and discovery. I am saddened by the fact that I will die with questions unanswered and stories untold. 


When I’m gone the world will keep moving, humanity will press further into the universe, but I won’t know of it, I won’t see it or hear of it, or be the one to do it. When I’m gone I will be gone and nothing will bring me back. 


So what do I do now with that understanding? Sisyphus and I share a similar fate, each day carrying our burdens to the end of it only to have it restart the next day, to carry the same burdens once more, and on and on each day until the end. But what if I choose to walk away from those daily burdens? I am not Sisyphus. No burden has been laid upon me by any authority greater than my own. Who is one man to another? Why does one’s authority supersede that of another over their own life? Perhaps the myth of authority has run its course and reached its end. We may be clinging to the tails of a played out myth hoping it continues out of fear for what lies outside the myth, but I think the myth itself is a horror story. Since the dawn of society man has subjugated man with mythic authority (the authority of the gods, of a god, of the state, of the constitution, of “the board”), but those myths need to end, and man needs to return to the only natural authority it has.


So again, what do I do now with this understanding? If I am the only being with natural authority over myself then I must choose for myself which paths I should walk, which objectives to pursue, and how I should pursue them. 


I can’t learn all I want to learn. I won’t see all I want to see or do and hear and feel all I want to do, hear, and feel, but I can be selective with my limited time. What activities are worth doing? I live in a capitalist world and so need money to survive, but should that be my whole life? No, of course not. Though my time and experiences and knowledge are limited, my ability to create change goes beyond my physical bounds. Plato lived more than two thousand years ago and yet his philosophy has influenced and continues to influence countless students from the time he first uttered his thoughts to this very day and on into the future for however many countless generations. If I spend my time and thoughts seeking a new paradigm or developing answers to life’s most difficult questions, I may be able to make the change I will never see, beyond the grave, beyond the confines of mortality and the aging, rotting cage that keeps my mind alive. 


So then, to assuage what may be fear or, more likely, apprehension towards death and dying, I can seek to create even the tiniest immortal legacy, as immortal as humanity, to be translated and transcribed, reimagined and debated by all who seek to understand the thinking of my time. Or, I can simply live authentically, seeing my job merely as a means of achieving something greater with my time. I spend my paychecks on wood and art supplies, or on vacations with my kids to new and exciting experiences, or write when I have the urge and draw when I feel inspired.


The creative works we do are far more meaningful than the industrious ones. Cogs in a machine are never remembered for their role in the accomplishments of the machine. I don’t remember my dad for his drafting abilities or his number of arrests as a police officer, I remember the time he sketched an image of a future me graduating from college on the back of a Bob’s Big Boy paper mat, or his booming rendition of Old Man River that he’d sing on roadtrips. My mom is still alive, but I’m sure I’ll remember her for her beautiful watercolor flowers, or our fascinating conversations and the support she always showed me in my music (even when it was a loud, anti-government punk band of highschool kids getting the cops called on them with noise complaints in the middle of the day).


I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the fear of death present in me, despite my inability to learn all I’d want to learn and experience all I’d want to experience, is swallowed up in the actions I take, the decisions I make, and the creativity I engage in. Creativity, by the way, is more than just paintings and music, but it is anything that breathes new light and hope into the world. Scientific discoveries are creative. Humanitarian aid is creative. Philosophy and ethics are creative. Supporting your friends and family in their needs and desires is creative. So be creative, build that boat you’ve been putting off, put that chalk on your hands and find a new wall to climb, invent a new battery, have a difficult conversation with someone you disagree with, tell that boy you love him, spend time with your children, be more than what you put on your resume, and have no fear of death.

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