I was awake for a couple of hours in the night. It happens.
An hour or two before bed I had finished reading “A Farewell to Arms.” I’ve read it before, and so I knew all along just exactly who was going to die, and how unjust it would feel, and how it would stay with me, but none of that served to soften the blow. It hit me hard and it was still on my mind when I woke up in the night.
I wasn’t at all disturbed as I lay there thinking about death. I watched my mind go this place and that as though it were being projected on a screen in a cinema – I, the lone attendee of the premiere.
I watched my own death several times over, scouring my imagination for all of the most unpleasant ways I’d heard it could happen. I saw myself crucified, like Christ. I saw myself marched to Semynov Place in St Petersburg with a black hood over my head, like Dostoyevsky, only unlike him I wasn’t pardonned at the eleventh hour – I got the firing squad. I saw myself ordered by the Romans to slit my wrists in a warm bath, like Seneca.
There was nothing morbid about this spectacle. I almost enjoyed it – historically it tends to be the good people that are subjected to these kinds of violent endings. Perhaps if I played my cards I would be one of them. JFK and Martin Luther King? Assassinated in their prime. Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover? A stroke at 81, and a heart attack at 77. I know which side I would rather be on.
And so after the thrill and high of the narcissism wore off, I went on a new train of thought – is it possible that fearing conflict and the possibility of an unpleasant death is affecting the way I live my life? And sadly, I had to admit that it was. More than I had ever realised.
I started to see just how much of my days are filled with avoiding conflict at all costs, choosing to play it safe for fear that if I didn’t I wouldn’t be capable of handling the consequences. I saw how when I detect the mere hint of the possilibility of conflict on the horizon, my mind races to me suddenly being on trial for crimes I didn’t even mean to commit, sentenced to torture and then to death by a faceless regime who just don’t understand me.
I asked myself which I would prefer: to exist for as long as my biology held out but feel on a daily basis that I was selling myself short; or to live for just one more day, but live it ‘right’, whatever that might mean?
It’s easy to say I’d prefer the latter. But now I have to prove it to myself through the way I live. Philsophy is not about grand thoughts. It is about our choices in every moment of every day.
Here’s the truth: You can’t have your cake and eat it too – you can’t live right and play it safe. Sometimes they are one and the same, but in the moments when they are not, the side you tend towards sums you up.
So when push comes to shove, will you prioritise doing the right thing whatever it costs, or avoiding all risk and conflict? From one comes life, from the other, mere existence.
When you live rightly, you do indeed put yourself at a higher risk of upsetting people, of offending people, of displeasing the regime, and yes, of potentially of having your years on this planet cut short. But even added together, these are miniscule prices to pay, when you realise the alternative:
And that is to have never really lived at all.