My iPhone just alerted me to the fact that Carrie Fisher, legendary Star Wars actress, writer, and all-round wonderful human being (I hear), has died. I didn’t grow up with Star Wars, so I don’t feel particularly attached to Princess Leia or Carrie Fisher in general, but I know enough people who did to recognize that there’s going to be a lot of grief over this news. This is only compounded by the many other noteworthy deaths we’ve had to face up to this year—Alan Rickman, David Bowie, and George Michael, to name a few.
In addition to these “famous” deaths we’ve grieved collectively, some of us have had to cope with deaths closer to home. I lost my Grandma this year—the kindest person in my life, and the one who made me the most stable growing up. It’s been a tough year, especially as most of us have been grieving the loss of our faith in humanity alongside actual deaths, as we’ve watched a sexual assaulter and generally awful human being get elected as US president by people who think he will save their nation.
I would like to offer some of my personal thoughts on death, because that’s my prerogative as a probably-still-naive 24-year-old, right? I hope they’ll help some of you who are struggling to come to terms with something that feels so painfully unfair.
1. Life only exists because of death.
As far as we know, everything on our planet evolved from single-cell organisms reproducing. Millions of years of life forms trying to evade death lead us to this point in time—where we, humans, can look at our smartphones to learn of a death that occurred thousands of miles away, and feel emotion over the loss of someone we’ve never met, but have appreciated the works of.
Not only is consciousness remarkable and statistically insane, it required a hell of a lot of death to come into fruition. If our ancestors hadn’t been constantly on the run from death (which came because of predators, weather conditions, disease, resource scarcity, and probably a lot of other really scary stuff), natural selection would never have refined our species to the point we’ve now arrived at. (Which is mostly phone addiction and high-fructose corn syrup, but there are people doing awesome things too!)
Evolution happened because things didn’t “want” to die. Without death, we’d be nothing at all. Death is just part of the contract of life, so if you like life—be grateful for death! It’s the reason you’re here, able to stand in awe of mountains and trees and WHAM.
2. Those who will be remembered for the great things they did with their lives are very lucky.
Most deaths go unnoticed by the world in general, and are mourned by a relatively small circle of people close to them. It’s easy to feel that famous people dying is somehow worse than your average Joe kicking the bucket, because we are attached to them in a different way, but I don’t think that’s the case.
In the Westworld season finale (have you watched Westworld? You should, it’s on HBO), a character called Ford said the following quote that stuck with me:
“Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin never died. They simply became their music.”
Instead of mourning the loss of those who did great things, let’s celebrate their lives for what they were—full of achievement that changed people’s lives. Those who left a legacy of greatness really are lucky, as they were able to essentially immortalize special parts of themselves in a way that will continue to affect other humans for a long time. They still exist, because the fruits of who they were still exist.
The people close to us who die leave an even greater legacy with us. We are all the product of our genetics and experiences, which means my brain (and therefore, who I am) has been significantly shaped by people like my Grandma. She instilled many good qualities in me that aren’t gone because she is—they’re literally a part of my programming, and she lives on through me and others who knew her in that way. I am more compassionate, understanding, and motivated to do good in the world because of my Grandma. Those of us who share genes with her are an even greater part of the legacy she left behind, because we are made of parts of her. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?
3. Life and death cannot co-exist.
If you’re scared of your own death, don’t be. (It’s funny because I still am, kind of.) I watched a TED talk a while ago where the speaker quoted something along the lines of, “It’s pointless to fear death, because where life is, death is not, and where death is, life is not.” We will never experience being dead—unless there’s some deity or advanced race lording over us somewhere and this is all an advanced simulation, which seems unlikely. Regardless, falling into an eternal deep sleep (even that’s overstating what death is) is far preferable to the sort of death religions have imagined since the birth of tribalism, so try not to fear it, because you’ll never experience it!
4. Living forever would suck!
Have you ever taken an extended period of time away from work and your regular responsibilities, only to discover than even your favorite leisure activities can get old pretty fast when there’s nothing worse to compare them to? You may not have, but I work from home and have a lot of free time, and let me tell you—endless leisure is not the dream. I constantly miss the routine and even hardship of work, because life can get boring without it. Similarly, but to a much greater degree, I think eternal life is extremely overrated. Think of all the crap you’d have to watch the world go through if you never died. I shudder at the thought. (Carrie Fisher just saved herself the pain of witnessing a four-to-eight-year Trump presidency, if that’s any consolation!)
Life is already pretty long, and it can be even longer if you live healthily (WHOLE PLANT FOODS, PEOPLE), don’t do meth, and last long enough to see advancements in age reversal and other crazy cool stuff scientists are working on. So hang in there, and stay positive.
5. We can enjoy good things because we have to endure bad things.
You know how (stereotypically) a lot of beautiful people aren’t very funny, because they’ve always been able to coast off their looks and never really developed a humor coping mechanism like the rest of us? Yeah. That’s kind of like our existence. Good things come because of bad things, just like #1 in this list pointed out. I for one am thrilled I was overweight and weird as a young teen, because it made me read more books and work harder in school.
We love the hardest when we fear we’re about to lose someone. We work the hardest when we’re worried we’re about to lose our jobs. (Just me?) And we should be motivated to live our best lives because we know they won’t last forever. Endless time, as I said, is not the ideal, and we’re deluding ourselves if we think we’d manage to be happy, productive individuals for like…. trillions of years. Gah, what a nightmare.
At the end of the day, death is really hard, and no logical thought process can make that not the case. Thankfully, our brains are built to endure, and ultimately get over, grief. Sometimes it will hurt for a really long time—even forever, in some ways, but we are wired to be able to move on, as our sadness heals with time and new experiences. Try to remember those you lose with positivity, celebrating the life they lived. Otherwise, we’re living with one foot in the grave, and that’s not healthy for anyone, nor does it honor the opportunity we’ve been given to live—consciously. Thanks, evolution!