‘Do what you want now. Everything in life should be informed by our mortality’
Laura Kennedy: Death changes your mind about things like nothing else will
‘We tend to ignore death until it kicks us hard in the face.’ Photograph: iStock
Forgive me the cliche, but death changes your mind about things like nothing else will. That is a tedious fact, and it speaks to the inherent suspicions of immortality we all secretly harbour about ourselves.
If, intellectually, we all know with total certainty that we will die, you would think that the deaths of people around us would not make us suddenly realise our own fragility. You would think that death would not visit upon us, with the freshness of completely new information, the finitude of our time on this rotating sphere in an infinite universe.
There’s nothing else for it, except to say that while we might be the most advanced and sophisticated species on this planet, we are still dumb as potatoes (and I really love potatoes).
We tend to ignore death until it kicks us hard in the face. Only then, after coming to, do we peer in the mirror at the swelling and bruises it leaves behind, and think I should quit my job and start that cheese stall I’ve always wanted or I should probably tell my girlfriend that I don’t love her any more, or feck it – I’m buying a boat.
Listen, not all realisations have to be deep and overarchingly important. They can be shallow reminders that you consistently ignore your own desires, and that if you don’t stop, you will die at the end of a (maybe shorter than you anticipated) life in which you consistently ignored your own desires. And for what? Good credit and a misspelled obituary in the local paper describing you as “dearly missed?” I’d rather the boat.
When people you love, who are vibrant and feeling and necessary to you, die, you realise the indifference of death
My mother died three years ago. Since that time, a friend of mine took their own life in desperately sad circumstances. The cumulative effect of these deaths, for me, has been the dumb realisation that the existence I take so for granted will stop one day. Again, I have always known that, but when people you love, who are vibrant and feeling and necessary to you, die, you realise the indifference of death.
It comes to everyone and your circumstances, the challenges of your life, your efforts to stay healthy often just don’t matter. Death is not meritocratic.
One of the most important realisations I have come to as a result of loss is that there are no “right times” to do things; there is just a vague sense of now and as much ingenuity as you can muster to cope with whatever happens.
I am not suggesting following one’s whims thoughtlessly, satisfying every appetite and changing direction every five minutes on the basis of what feels best in the moment. We all know someone like that. They move through the lives of others like a hostile army through defenceless villages, leaving nothing but burnt-out shells and often nothing will grow for a time where they have been.
Rather, what I am suggesting is taking a realistic perspective – there has to be a balance between spending all of your money on pay day and endlessly saving for something in the very distant future. We have to take care of the people we have a responsibility to and for. We have to take care of ourselves.
It is important to remember, though, that you could die before going on that trip you have always promised yourself. Maybe you intend at some point to get back in touch with someone you wronged in some way – do it now, because you might die before you can do it.
Everything we choose in life should be informed by our mortality, because there may not be as much time as we think
I could die before writing that book my family and friends keep asking about. They nudge at me, eyeing me pointedly and ask “So – any news?” with the intensity of an Irish mother-in-law from the late 1980s, looking at her daughter-in-law’s belly as though it is a public asset she’s entitled to know the status of at all times.
Don’t be irresponsible or unjustifiably selfish but if you possibly can without causing harm to yourself or others, do the thing that matters to you now. Have the family. Change the job. Go back to education. Buy the boat (if you can still pay your bills, that is). Everything we choose in life should be informed by our mortality, because there may not be as much time as we think.