Death may be scary, but it gives purpose to life

Death may be scary, but it gives purpose to life
PHOTO: The Straits Times

It's strange. You know you're going to die, people you know have died, you hear about natural disasters, terminal illnesses, terrorist attacks, freak accidents and yet, somehow, you grow up thinking you're invincible.

"You only live once," you are wont to reason - ironically - for the reckless stunts you pull.

But then one day, it just hits you: "What's the point of it all if it's going to end?"

I don't remember the specifics of that moment, but it appears there was no great catalyst for this existential crisis. I just remember the weeks of troubled sleep that followed.

I couldn't come to terms with the fact that it could all end so suddenly - work unfinished, words unsaid - because of something as random as lightning. And while I didn't really want to know when and how I was going to die, living with this unknown made me feel powerless.

I began to question every little thing I was doing, and despaired at the seeming senselessness of it. I thought of the years ahead of me in increments of 10 and panicked at how quickly I was getting old.

And so it was that, at 25, I freaked out at the first sign of eye bags. In my bleakest moments, I would think about life after death, and wonder if the concept was created as a coping mechanism for the vein of anxiety I was going through.

And then it dawned on me: "What's the point of it all if it's NOT going to end?"

Again, no known catalyst for this life-changing rebuttal, and no memory of the specifics either.

I point this out to say that this overwhelming awareness of mortality can sucker-punch you while you're washing the dishes. And, while it is frightening, venture into the darkness. Feel your way through the layout. There will be a light switch somewhere.

Death gives life direction and urgency. Without an end, we'd all be walking aimlessly, counting on Little Orphan Annie's never-ending tomorrow. Imagine if you had a thousand years to live; would you really make the most out of it? Read all the great books? Visit the seven continents? Try to make a difference? Unlikely.

Estimating that I have about 50 years more to live has put my priorities in order. Cheesy as it sounds, I wake up every day with a sense of purpose, knowing everything I do is a step closer towards a goal.

I've embraced a little bit of prudence. I think long term, unknowns factored in. I've learnt to value time, to say no, to eat my vegetables.

In the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, the turning point for its central character, Rob Fleming, begins with this realisation: "I always had one foot out the door, and that prevented me from doing a lot of things, like thinking about my future and... I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing, keep my options open."

For the longest time, I've had this relationship with life. Death changed all that.


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