Ten months ago, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was told it was Stage 4 and that half of similarly diagnosed patients die within ten months. They did not say that I had ten months left to live, because they did not know. But I am alive still. I count myself lucky, even if only in this context. Fortunate within the unfortunate circumstance of terminal cancer.
I also feel fairly well, and people, meeting me, cannot tell that I am sick. I’ve been on a clinical trial since my chemotherapy stopped working three months ago. Recent blood tests suggest that the new drug is working, but it is hard to hope on what only an experiment suggests. The likelihood of success is unknown. The doctors could guess, but they don’t even know the likelihood of the likelihood of success. And what does success even mean? Does it mean that my life might be saved, or merely extended? (Is that a difference of kind or only of degree?) If extended, does it mean by a couple of years or by a few months?
I met someone who had the same diagnosis as I did, except that his diagnosis was given three months earlier. He turned out to be a distant relative of some friends, and so I learned that he died just a few weeks ago. (The two, three times we met, I was struck by his friendliness and his clarity towards the future.) Even as real and as sad as his death was for him and his family and friends, I think mostly of what it means to me. This is self-absorbed thinking, but it is hard not to think that the spectre of death is haunting and taunting me in particular.
Of course, no such thing is happening, for there is no spectre of death, nothing picking me singularly, no way that something that does not exist can haunt except in my projection of it. In the way that darkness cannot haunt us, for it is in reality nothing but the absence of light, death too cannot haunt us, for it is nothing but the absence of life.
I am in fact haunting myself, because I don’t yet appreciate how death, and the possibility and probability of my death, just is. Death happens to all, to the brave, the wise, the foolish, and even to those who laugh at the absurdity of it all. There is nothing magical in dying, nothing grand in it whatsoever, yet death can somehow close and enclose my entire world.
I want to somehow survive death, as we all probably do. I don’t believe in an afterlife or a soul that can exist apart from this body. But it is plain that I will be remembered by others after I die, even if only for trivial or minor things, and their lives will continue beyond me. There is vanity in finding comfort here. We know it is vanity, because we know that that too cannot really last. Those who remember me will someday die as well. And those who remember those who remember me will also someday. And so on and so on, until there is no one left who remembers me at all.
This reasoning applies to you and to everyone else as well. This includes the mightiest of kings, as Shelley reminded us in Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Despite the equality of this universal inevitability, there are differences of degree. The traces of Hollywood celebrities and prime ministers, published authors and YouTube stars, will last longer than my own. The traces of those with many children will last longer than those without. And even those supremely unworthy, those who commit acts of evil just to be remembered, will have their names last longer than my own.
But being remembered after you die is not that different from being known now. Being remembered after you die is just being famous for a future crowd. And if so many of us claim to eschew fame or popularity, should we not then also eschew what is only posthumous fame? But eschewing this desire is not easy — for it means to accept limits on our existence, an outer bound to our lives. It means to close off the possibility of immortality.
There’s no fame in being simply a good and decent person, which is something I have tried to be. But in this striving is all that matters and all that one can really have control over: one’s own actions. This isn’t necessarily a comforting fact, but it is better to try to reconcile oneself with the truth rather than to bend the truth to what we wish were so.