“I stare at this ceaseless, rushing crowd and imagine a time a hundred years from now. In a hundred years everybody here– me included — will have disappeared from the face of the earth and turned into ashes or dust…I spread my hands out in front of me and take a good hard look at them. What am I always so tense about? Why this desperate struggle just to survive? I shake my head, turn from the window, clear my mind of thoughts a hundred years away. I’ll just think about now.”- Kafka on the shore, Haruki Murakami (56)
I was sitting on the deep raspberry seats of our Lumina looking back at the decorative knit balls that hung neatly in a row along the edge of the rear-window when I decided to ask my dad what he was most afraid of. I can’t remember what he said; I just remember him turning to look at those little ornaments and the crunching sound as the tires spun against the pebbles in our driveway. Or actually maybe he wasn’t looking back, maybe we had just arrived and he had just parked the car.
The sun washed everything in light, bleaching the green grass and the paint on our garage door, which was actually just created from a variety of abandoned doors from rooms in houses long since renovated. I seem to recall it being summer because of the way the heat permeated from the faux velvet seats. I must have been 7, maybe 8, because we sold the gold Lumina before I enrolled in the Catholic school near my house. I remember him laughing out of surprise, the strange “hyuk” sound emanating from his throat only manifested when he was either dumbfounded or derisive.
“What are you afraid of Leah?” he asked, grinning at me with red apple cheeks.
Again, I can’t quite recall my exact phrasing, but I can recollect– more than recollect, feel–my fear. This fear had been metastasizing since I’d first really understood death, since I’d learned to question Heaven and Hell. What I said was: Nothing. I’m afraid of nothing or, rather, nothingness. I am terrified that when I die there will be no me, no consciousness. No memories of bleached doors or dangling ornaments or pebbles pulled from my rock collection and thrown in a driveway.
My father laughed and said “Well, don’t worry, if you don’t exist then you won’t be there to know it.”
As I’ve aged, though I’m still quite young, I’ve wrestled with this question, and my father’s response, many times. I can never quite figure out if his response is comforting or disturbing. When he said it, I felt this strange twist in my gut, as if he had confirmed everything I felt afraid of. I didn’t sleep well that night because sleep without remembered dreams seemed a lot like death. Not even convincing myself I was the Red King, who created entire worlds as he gave up his own, could persuade me to turn off my light and sleep willingly.
Later, in high school, I truly confronted what the consequences of my fear’s solution would be. In class we read a short story on the types of people in an immortal world. There were two types, the story asserted: those who did everything because they had all the time in the world, and those who did nothing for the same reason. I wonder what eternity as the same soul would be like. How many decades, centuries, millennia would I enjoy everything or nothing? If life is eternity, and we can do everything or nothing, will it be what I know now?
Should I give up my life for immortality?
At the end of the story, the author reveals a third group, which siphons off the population of doers and non-doers, who leaves for a mysterious cliff-side. Not much is explained, but the implication could be that they choose to die.
After decades, centuries, millennia of looking at the same hands, they chose dust.
Maybe, at some point, we’ll all want to choose dust; but, since dust comes a little sooner than we’d all like, maybe it’d be better to try doing what we like, if we can, now.
That way, even if we disappear into a great nothing with no hot summer air or surprised laughs, our great life will have made going to the cliffs a little less terrifying.