People say that time goes by; time says that the people go by.Vietnamese proverb
Living life and expecting death
Life as we know it exists between two predefined points: birth and death. We spend a lot of our time around the concept of birth. In fact, we even have a dedicated day to remember and celebrate it every year. The recognition of death as part of life, on the other hand, is something we rarely come across. We spend every day not thinking about it — we actively avoid thinking about it. It is quite natural to live that way. However, two things changed that for me over the last many months.
First, I read/watched a bunch of stuff which dealt either with the concept of death or had a character dealing with death. Second, with the pandemic, there has been so much more news about death and the disease that this has always been on the back of my head. I get reminded that we like to be removed from the concept of death, yet we hardly think of the fact that we are hurtling towards a point in time where we may not exist.
Perhaps later than I think, but certainly sooner than I desire.Dr. Paul Kalanidhi, When Breath Becomes Air
I connected strongly with what Dr. Paul Kalanithi said in his book, When Breath Becomes Air. He was successful as both an accomplished doctor and a really good writer. He put the right words in the right places. In his own words, “When there is no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool”. It was this book that made me start thinking about the concept of death — not as something inevitable in the future, but as a part of life. The part of life that gave the most meaning to life itself. To quote the book again:
Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when.Dr. Paul Kalanidhi, When Breath Becomes Air
After my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But I knew it acutely.
The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.
His writing shined a light on the fact that life wasn’t about trying to avoid suffering, pain, or death, but that all of these were just as much a part of life, as every other moment of joy or pleasure. Knowing when we will die will make us want to live life to the full. If we don’t know when, ideally, that should make us want to live our lives even more. For every day we have lived, we have died a little too.
Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s struggles with cancer reminded me of another person: Adam Lerner. Adam is a fictional person. He suffered from a different type of cancer, and his story has been made into the movie 50/50, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anna Kendrick. The fictional movie is based on the real-life of the movie’s writer Will Reiser, a cancer survivor.
Living in the face of death
While Adam Lerner is a fictional character, he is very relatable. We all know an Adam in our lives, or in a way, are our own Adam. He is someone who tries to please everyone and do everything right. In the first scene, he is jogging and pauses to wait for a signal on an empty road to turn green — despite another jogger running past him without caring much for the signal. When diagnosed with cancer, his exact words are
Adam: A tumor? Me? I mean, that doesn’t make sense. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink…I recycle.
This reminds me of the Just World Theory, about which I’ve also wanted to write for some time now. When I do write it, I’ll link it here.
The movie was a touching experience. I felt that the way the movie handled the concept of death was quite similar to how it’s usually done by us as well. Even when diagnosed with cancer with a survival rate of 50%, we can feel the atmosphere of death looming in the background. Yet it hits Adam (and us) heavily only when another patient passes away. Before he is diagnosed, he is taken for granted. There are instances when people just walk out in the middle of a conversation with him. Once word gets around that he may not survive, everyone handles him lightly and encourages him to keep his hopes up. This gets on his nerves and we see a rare outburst from Adam
We treat people who are dying in a delicate manner and it feels right because we don’t have enough time to disagree or make them feel bad. We try to make the most of whatever time they have left, even if it means taking the high road, or at times lying to make life easier for them. But here’s the thing that we know, yet haven’t really realised: everyone is dying, although at different rates.
We shouldn’t just be treating those who know that they are dying faster; we need to treat everyone with love and respect. Living isn’t really much different from dying. They’re two sides of the same coin. We need to take the sadness with the joy — the good with the bad. Accepting one emotion increases how much we feel the other. What makes you feel sick and sad is linked to what makes you feel happy and healthy. These are openings into what we are as human beings. The ability to feel, for us and for others, is what made us survive as a species.
Life is made of all those experiences. The difficult experiences are just as much a part of life as the easier ones. But looking at what you have now in your life, and what change you can bring about in other’s lives, is what I feel, is the answer to
What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?Dr. Paul Kalanidhi, When Breath Becomes Air
The meaning of our lives is the impact we can have on the people around us, and by extension, the mark we leave on this world. This is your legacy. One day we will disappear, but the mark will not. That is your Horcrux: that which anchors your soul to this world.
P.B. Shelly’s Ozymandius tells us how the things we build for glory will crumble with time. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 touches upon the same concept and then talks about how loved ones are never forgotten for they live on as memories and in the praises that we sing of them.
Ozymandias — P. B. Shelly
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Sonnet 55 — William Shakespeare
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire, shall burn
The living record of your memory:
’Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity,
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgement that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
Living life beyond death
These two poems remind me of many leaders whose accomplishments aren’t celebrated with the same fervour across the world — but are remembered fondly by the people whose lives they touched. What you do in your life, is going to cast a shadow on this world, and more importantly on the ones who love you. In the words of Rick Riordan, author of Kane Chronicles, (from where I quote the following lines):
Some people cast hardly any shadow at all. Some cast long, deep shadows that endured for centuries. If a person cast no shadow at all, he couldn’t be alive. His existence became meaningless.
Even when you are gone, your mark, your shadow, your legacy is going to live on in this world. Just like we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us, our future generations will stand on our shoulders. Every aspect of our lives today depend on the legacy left behind by those before us: friends, family, artists, leaders, teachers, etc. This could also be interpreted as privilege. How good or how bad our lives are today, depends on how each of our ancestors survived in the society of their time and what they were able to leave behind for their successors. Whether it be through wealth, networking connections, books, public speeches, organ donation, or even teaching the right things to children — everything that we provide for the future generations, makes an impact on the world that we build.
It is through our children that we carry on living. These children need not be offspring: what we say, what we write, what we do, and how we make others feel could be the legacy that we leave behind for the world. Everything we do in our lifetime is part of us, our soul, our legacy. Your soul is made of the memories that you remember. Your legacy is made of everything that people remember of you.
Dr. Paul Kalanithi said, “Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living” and I agree. As long as we are alive, we can continue to live and make the world a better place for those who will be here even when we are not. You don’t have to be one of the world’s greatest leaders to make the world feel your impact. As one of my better friends put it, “Sometimes the greatest legacy we can leave behind is in the smaller things we do and the lives of people that we’ve touched”.
It is fine if the shadow you cast covers just a few people who will miss you when you are gone. We may not realise it but the number of people who will miss us is much more than we think. It is these people who will bask in our shadow when we are gone. The world is on fire, and it’s nice to have a spot in someone’s shade while building your own spot of shade.
Legacy as an idea
There is a Tamil movie by the name Uththama Villain. One of my favourite sequences is a discussion about how one gains immortality and the protagonist lists the three ways that he knows:
- Be a sage who knows the past, present, and the future.
- Create literature that is acclaimed by people across time.
- Live forever as an artist who has won the hearts of people.
The crux of the film is a dying actor who wants to
- resolve his strained relationships with his children by gaining their respect as a father, and
- set right his legacy with his audience by making his last movie a good one to immortalise himself as an artist in their hearts.
The actor wanted to create a better legacy to be remembered by, both as an actor and as a father. It is this immovable legacy that is brought up as immortality.
Legacy is the tool with which one’s life continues even in the face of death. It’s the torch that is handed over from generation to generation, like a relay race where each participant carries the baton during their journey. Part of the journey is the end, and yet the end of one is the beginning of another. While death is part of life, one’s legacy is the journey that carries on, when one passes away. In one of the more delicately crafted songs from the movie, the protagonist sings
மாறாதது கலையும் கவியும் — மாயாதது என்றும் நம் அறிவும் அன்பும்.
Art and poetry do not change — intelligence and love can not die.
What you create, as long as it resonates with other human beings, will be alive. One of my teachers from school once said, “The sun always shines on Shakespeare”. I didn’t really understand it back then and used to think that English was rooted so deeply in many of the British colonies, that even after centuries, in some part of the world in some school some kid would always be reading about the Bard of Avon. It is now that I realise that his works (and many such creations from across the world) have stood the test of time, and will continue to be read as long as the sun shines upon us.
Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead – when I exist in no one’s memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that person dies, the whole cluster dies, too, vanishes from the living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?Irvin D. Yalom
The fact that we can still relate to stories that were written centuries ago, makes me realise that the world doesn’t really change. You’re going to see the exact same world as everyone before you and after you. The only difference is that you have a different vocabulary, a different definition of what the world looks like. You will continue to see the same fights for justice that your ancestors fought against, which, will carry on to your future generations too.
It was important, Dumbledore said, to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then could evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated.J.K. Rowling
The tools that we all use will differ, but the tasks are the same. The struggles take on a different form each time. With time, people will disappear, but the ideas we plant will not.
As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins
In fact, this very concept that I have been beating around the bush for the past five or so paragraphs can be succinctly summed up into one line from a song in the Tamil movie Enthiran. This song describes a robot that the protagonist is building and he describes it as an immortal being as “…everything born from a womb dies; everything born from the brain is immortal.” (The original lines read கருவில் பிறந்தது மரிக்கும் அறிவில் பிறந்தது மரிப்பதே இல்லை which is a much better way to phrase it if you know to read Tamil).
If you are still reading this, you either know me personally and polite enough to read it because I asked you to. Or you really liked reading what I had to share. Either way, we’re at the end of this journey, and you need to carry something on to the next. What I want you to take away from all of this isn’t something new: it is as old as the day I am asking you to seize. Carpe diem, folks.
How would you feel if your afterlife is made of the things that you spent time on while you’re alive?
Don’t be caught dead doing what you don’t like — live life doing what you love.
In the Spock Resonance episode from The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon says “Kup-fun-tor ha’kiv na’ish du stau?”, a Vulcan phrase which means “Can you return life to what you kill?”. While life as we know it cannot be brought back from beyond the grave, we can continue living beyond death by leaving behind a meaningful legacy. One that we create by making the most of our lives, by truly living until we actually die. When we do that, then
the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.J. K. Rowling
If you liked what you just read, then please check out the material (the movies and the books) that inspired me which I referenced a lot in this post. I have linked most of them to their respective Wikipedia pages, but a quick online search will lead you to the content themselves. Here’s a list of other, similar content that I enjoyed, and you might too:
- The Restaurant of Life
- The Egg – A Short Story
- Legacy in art: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story