I wanted to write an essay. I wanted to detach myself, assume a disinterested, objective viewpoint and analyze critically and unsympathetically the singular event of my past that so shaped my present-day self. I wanted to, really. But it all came out so fluidly, so organically. The thoughts practically wrote themselves. So please, excuse the lack of formality: this is the story of a past experience that taught me how to live.
I lay for a moment, confused, uneasy. Something had startled me, something had woke me up. Eyes bleary, I could see that it was 4:13AM. This was February, there was a crisp coolness to the air, and I was 12 years old. In one fluid motion, I rolled from my bed, into my slippers, and managed to flip the light switch on.
It was quiet in my bedroom and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust the stinging luminescence. It only took me a moment to locate the cause of the preternatural stillness. The silence was deafening. And I understand what had woken me, what had startled me and tore me from my dreams. It wasn’t a noise. Not, it was silence. It was stillness.
My room was always awash in the calming flutter of wings and the clicking of claws like so many raindrop patters. My budgie, his name was Rocky. I mean that in the past tense: was. What I found has stayed with me for quite some time now. Rocky died in the middle of the night, and his death sucked something so real and vital and alive from my room that it literally shook me awake. By the time my eyes were clear enough to see the clock again, it was 7AM, and I could hear the rest of the house come to life—faucets, drawers, doorknobs: I was no longer the only one awake. But no matter how many hands squeezed my shoulder, no matter how many sleeves dabbed at my confused tears, and no matter how many hugs consumed my scrawny frame, I suffered alone. There’s really nothing like death to make you feel alone.
This was it: my first encounter with the condition of all of our lives: finitude. We’re mortal beings, finite creatures: we live, and we die. And, as Albert Camus once said: “In order to exist just once in the world, it is necessary never again to exist.”
How sorry a fact, how tragic a realization. So much death in exchange for so little life. What’s important here, I can see now—the passage of so many years has brought with it some clarity—is the fact that it was not an aunt, not a friend, not a lover and not a mother whose abrupt death forced me into a relationship with finitude. No. It was my bird. An animal. A pet. Martin Heidegger, the German Idealist, spent his life articulating the idea that it is only when we accept the fact that we will one day inevitably die that we can begin to live. The fact of death makes everything more urgent, more significant. But for Heidegger, it’s the death of a fellow human-being that initiates the contact with finitude. It’s by sharing the fact of our common mortality that we can draw each other near, that we can flourish as intimate beings whose fate is shared: we will all die, so let us make sure first to live.
But it was my bird that died. And I can still think back to how unpalatable, how unreasonable and how absurd the whole event really was. I was 12, and I could barely comprehend what had happened. But as the seconds turned to minutes turned to days, as the time passed as it is wont to do, I began to realize how closely we are connected, animals and humans. We share not only a common world, but a common fate as well.
Jack Kerouac, the beat-poet, upon waking one swollen, red-faced morning—hung-over and introspective—stumbled over to his bedroom window and penned the scene that struck him; he immortalized the thoughts that ravaged his tired head; he wrote a short poem:
“Those birds sitting
out there on the fence—
They’re all going to die”
They will die just as I will die, thinks Kerouac. They too will die, not any differently—the reaper doesn’t discriminate. All animals are affected by the same finitude, bound by the same mortal chains, tethered to the uncertain earth with the same uncertain life-spans.
This is what I take from Kerouac, this is what my 12 year old self knew better than any amount of German Idealism or French Existentialism could teach: Death is not a human phenomena. Rather, it’s a link that draws together all beings with the capacity to suffer.
And suffer I did. The only thought capable of consoling my sorry self was that Rocky might not have. Might not have suffered, that is. After all, he didn’t make a sound. It was the silence that hurt my ears. It was the lack of life that woke me from my naivety.
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As it is so wont to do, time passes. And we all die.
The task isn’t to dwell too extensively on the fact of our finitude.
The task is to seize the opportunity to make it meaningful. Live.