Time is contracting around us at a linear rate. Each second we live is a second subtracted from the rest of our lives. And these days, it seems the same can be said about Mother Nature, perhaps about life itself.
Many animals are relatively unaware of their mortality, and so they charge forth with alacrity until one day age finally renders them slower than the herd and so they are picked off by the wolves simply for losing a step. I often look at Hank and think about how limited my time with him is in the grand scheme, and how he doesn’t really know that. Sometimes when I tell him what a good boy he is, I have pained visions of doing the same while some veterinarian plays god and ends his life with a cocktail of chemical injections, because we’re told it’s “the right thing to do.”
We humans are quite aware of our mortality, yet we are wildly bad at letting it inform us of anything meaningful. We craft elaborate religious premises as a way to downplay the finality of death, and then we let those religions pork barrel rules about our lives, denying ourselves the opportunity to fully live just in case we might get to keep living in some cosmic city with streets made of gold forever. We have, in the last century, crafted a linear vision of progress, replete with self-denial and investment portfolios, guaranteed social security and the foregone conclusion that stocks and houses only go up. The more disciplined and alpha the soul, the larger the slice of this finite pie you get to claim as your own.
And now, the table cloth has been pulled from the 20th Century buffet. It is crashing down, economically, environmentally, emotionally. We cannot pretend that we will live forever, or that this planet will constantly surprise us with new underground pools of oil to enrich the next generation of descendents from some wildcatter of yore. We cannot assume that the job we have today will exist tomorrow, or that buying a house and frittering away our pennies in blue chip stocks means we will somehow have an easy tomorrow, no matter how obvious it is to me that my own financial self-abuse has “set me back” a decade or more as I tried to atone for the sin of existing by refusing to accumulate my own acorns. We cannot assume that tomorrow is guaranteed, for the individual or the species.
What is funny is how often we do exactly that. And how obvious it is in hindsight, that we had it so good before we let it all die. Or perhaps we didn’t but the highlight reel gets so glossy when time contracts like a black hole until it cannot get any denser. It can be all but impossible to separate the very animal instinct to play the good moments back before we die and to trust our own convoluted desires amidst a life of conditioning us to believe that desire is bad.
Perhaps that gnawing feeling inside of us is a permanent condition, and learning to live with the yearning while filling our lives to the brim is the ultimate zen. But what if the yearning is a powerful instructor, urging us not to settle, doing its silent, screaming darndest to remind us of true virtues amidst a world rife with false prophets? I have so many peers who “have it all” and still confide in me their dissatisfaction, who ask me if I feel the constant burning need for something different. Of course I do. And I would not consider myself to have it all; I have, at times, had partners who could’ve lasted forever, had patio views I wish I could get back, had jobs that struck a better balance of time and compensation and engagement than anything I’ve done since. I’ve enjoyed things so much and let them go when life got shaky, because the easiest thing to do with yearning is kill it with a machete swing, to say that we do not care about things when what we mean is that we care so much and cannot figure out how to hold on.
With time and space and months’ worth of dreams and nightmares, it is easy to write a perfect poem in tribute to what was. It is a bit more difficult to celebrate what is amidst all the present-tense stresses and exhaustions that muddy the signal. With a definite ending, it is natural to begin lamenting all the good we are giving up, even if we spend our days noticing that things are mostly Pretty Bad. I am no different than the elk, catching that whiff of autumn on the wind, seeing the forage whither as the frost settles deeper into the hills, realizing that what I had every day was good only when it is now gone. I am no different than the elk, because even on the most perfect summer day, there is always a wolf in the shadows, always a whiff of smoke on the wind, reminding me that I must be ready to run. And there is the unnatural thunderous cracking of a rifle somewhere in the valley, a sound that echoes and tricks the ear, a sound which we know means danger but have no evolutionary precedent for how to evade it.
This is the modern condition. We can mourn the changing of the seasons, can miss the crisp mornings, can long for that one impossibly perfect alpine day when wildfires were far away and the hot springs were empty; as humans, we are animals with relatively long and vivid memories. We cannot quite figure out how to integrate those core memories with the ruthless requirements of modern living, the jobs we must hold, the bills we must pay, the cacophony of information bursting into our phones and computers at all times, demanding our attention, fracturing our ability to pay attention to anything that matters.
I am sitting here now, aware that I must make major changes in my life. I must find a new job, a new place to live, a community that fills my life in ways that all the doom scrolling in the world cannot. I must hang my head in resignation at the frustrating, true punchline of Into the Wild–that “Happiness only real when shared.”
In the midst of the seemingly-impossible task of building all pillars of modern life from thin air, again, in my thirties, I feel my brain mourning the things I will leave behind as I walk away from a life that doesn’t serve me. The one lovely afternoon at the swimming hole, my brain erasing the ticks and horseflies and meth-addled fellow swimmers from the images in my mind. The long and challenging gravel bike rides far out in the hills, again ironing out the immense grief I was sitting with for hour upon silent hour. The absolutely unreal canopies of fall foliage, those few days when the weather is good and the bugs are few and the views are at their best. The silent, groggy mornings drinking coffee alone in a space that is as beautiful as it is flawed, striving to create purpose in my days when they innately lack it. Was this all worth what I lost to come here, or am I just lost, an animal stuck somewhere between hunter-gatherer and digital nomad, pushed to move by some unknowable life force, rendering myself a bit lonelier with each transition.
There is something about life that feels more beautiful when it is strained through the filter of the finite. Some part of our beings is best at appreciating the good when we know it is running out. We can always think back on certain memories fondly once we separate them from the confusion of the life they were a part of. Perhaps it is the knowledge that the requisite suffering is winding down that allows us to finally catch our breath and feel more pleasure than pain.
The most difficult part of balancing the demands of existing in the society we’ve created and trying to enjoy one’s own existence as something more than a list of rules to follow is openly embracing what we learn without regretting what we didn’t know before. How to escape the thought spiral of dollars we could have back, years we would’ve spent differently, followers who left our silly social media spheres because we spoke about things that matter to us? We learn from mistakes, but sometimes it is awfully hard to appreciate the lesson when the cost feels insurmountable.