The whole of life is such a lottery, however great the things we do along the way, that to hope for an ideal end to it is as unsettled as what is going to happen to us today.
As I wrote elsewhere, death is unnerving and unwelcome, as brave a face as we would like to put on it. It follows that our death also determines the last thing we think of on planet Earth.
There is a sad reality to the number of people who farewell their life with an anticlimactic thought. Ricky Gervais has stated on many occasions that dying while asleep is the best way to go, in which case the thought is, “I’ll move that pillow,” or if we’re a little more watchful and unlucky, “Why did I do that absurd thing x number of years ago?”
For some this is much more akin to, “I loathe this humiliation or that embarrassment,” or “these awful lurking regrets or problems will never leave me be! If only I had made the effort to do so much more.” It is hard to surmise whether dying with those thoughts is worse than “This plane is going to crash!”—perhaps how we live inevitably defines how we think and the regrets that we must carry with us and the challenges always on our horizon, as temporary now as in the end. It is inevitable that death, in swiftly taking away our life, with foreknowledge or none, is made up of those unpleasantnesses of our life’s uncertainty and lacking as much as the sad knowledge of its ending forever.
Some people, such as Buddhists, argue that learning to be present in the moment will help us to meet this defining one. They insist that in this way we can prepare to die. All of life is—as it is in fact—leading to extinction and true believers will spend hours and days pursuing the negation of the self and Nirvana and preparing for death. Shutting out all thought of the ego or self is a noble ambition given the inherent selfishness of life otherwise, yet why must we negate (or attempt to negate) thought and self-awareness to prepare for death? Is this as much of an illusory guarantee as those found in other religions?
There is a memorable line at the end of “The Shawshank Redemption” where the narrator Morgan Freeman (of course) as Red says jokingly, “I’d like to think that the last thing that went through his head—other than that bullet—was to wonder how the hell that Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him.” There is something great in the bullet line that makes light of the suicide of Andy Defresne’s main tormentor, but it’s difficult to imagine for those of us who have not been to the complete brink of these thoughts what others may be thinking immediately before a suicide or an attempt.
Rather than decreasing in the modern world, suicide is one of its main killers; as most people know, it is more common in developed nations (the leaders are Lithuania and South Korea) and, even though the rate of attempts is high among women, most suicides are men. What brings someone to this place, and are there words that might bring them back away from the edge? (It is clear that sometimes those on a ledge about to jump have been brought physically back, and it is common for those who attempt to kill themselves while young to wholeheartedly regret it in later life.)
The question, facing the reality of suicide, is how do we deal with our pain? Can depression be viewed from the outside, giving better perspective to the absurdities (over what is perceived to have become the hopelessness) of life? Is the prospect of living with humiliation and suffering and other lulls of tedium (the “flat grey years” of a pertinent Morrissey song) that life presents better than ending these thoughts entirely and forever? Does our desperate melancholy and shame—perhaps prolonged or of a moment—grant us the boldness to transfer this endless anguish to many others around us?
Life has so many more things to offer than pain—it has a limitless facility for thoughts and new encounters with people and ideas and forlornly and desperately needed redemption through our kinder actions. We must press on in spite of all the hate outside, overpowering the coercive energy of apathy or exhaustion to do good things that we know, nonetheless, are never enough.
Life goes on day to day, with new opportunities and people that we connect with—until it doesn’t, and we’ve come to spend our last thought mingled with regrets and weighing up our dissatisfactions with what transpired. If we’re lucky we spend it with family or friends, kind rather than unforgivingly serious meditations on what we have achieved, and most of all with an appreciation for the great gift, however flawed, and in the face of losing it, we were so fragilely given in the first place.