When Looking Back Is Better Than Looking Ahead

Like many other people, I was surprised at how much I was saddened by the recent suicide of actor Robin Williams. For a person I’ve never met, simply knowing that his life is over feels like a personal loss. Having been so busy with my new position at work, I hadn’t been plugged into the hive-mind on Reddit like I usually am when public tragedies or deaths occur. Once I was able to log into Facebook or scroll through rumor threads on Reddit, I found a sudden and overwhelming outpouring of sorrowful admiration.  Even my brother, who has impressive internal complexity but expresses his emotions to me as often as they hold Olympic Games, texted to tell me that it felt like we lost a great childhood friend. After I finished what I was doing, I marshaled forth a few scrambled thoughts that didn’t adequately express my heart.

Despite the fact that I’m actually very good at expressing certain emotions, such as appreciation and disappointment, I don’t particularly enjoy thinking about death. While this might seem inconsistent with my obsession over the past, death inhabits a different intellectual space in my mind than does a nostalgic look back on the past. Nostalgia is a homesickness for places, persons, or things of the past. Its gaze backwards is usually warm, illusory, and more expansive with each passing year, even if our memory is more and more unreliable as time passes.

Death, on the other hand, is an increasingly bitter and more immediate prospect. Each day that I wake up is one less day remaining in the future to look forward to. The day leaps across the present into the past, where it joins the thousands of other days that have irreversibly moved from potential to expended. At this precise moment, I hope that the scales of my life are still tilted more towards the future than the past, but I have no way of knowing. One day, the scales will be as unbalanced as they possibly can be and there won’t be any more days to expend. This fairly simple fact of existence is true for everyone. Me, my beloved family members, and you, dear reader are, as John Keating put it, food for worms.

Death bothers me because, despite it’s conceptual simplicity, it is completely unknowable. Death is the perfect other. It exists simultaneously as both punctuation and portal. I can’t be dead while still being me, because being me requires being alive and self-aware. I can’t experience death without no longer being able to report or record my experiences. Death can’t truly be known while a person still lives, even if an individual manages to clinically experience one of the reported encounters with a rich existence beyond the white light. In that state, you weren’t all dead, just mostly dead. There’s a big difference.

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With all dead, there’s usually only one thing you can do: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

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