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Lessons from a Funeral

Today we buried my grandfather.

Grampa Henry

While we were never close, it's still difficult to watch someone getting ever closer to the end of their time, when they cease to be a living breathing person and become just another memory in the minds of those around them. To see the loss and pain in the faces of those they were close to, their family and friends.

His passing has helped remind me of some important ideas that we often ignore or neglect to consider.

We are not immortal.

We are part of this existence for a short time. On the timeline of the life of this universe, an average human lifespan is practically nothing. We come into being, we spend some time making the best of our situation, then we're gone, and the universe marches on unaffected. Yet in the years we have, it's up to us to do our best to change that – to make sure that when our time is up, the universe isn't unaffected. It's up to us to do something meaningful, leave something behind, make our mark on history (as relatively short as human history may be).

We are not our possessions.

Particularly in his later years, my grandfather was fairly private and protective of his things. It was his life, and he didn't want anyone else getting their hands on his stuff. No one else had any right to be looking in that cupboard, or that room, and if they did they were obviously trying to steal something. (This caused some drama.)

Yet, now he's gone, and soon his family members are going to be going through his house. Going in every room, opening every drawer, deciding what to do with everything he owned. He can't protect any of his secrets or his possessions. Now they're all just stuff for someone else to deal with.

No matter how hard we try to make ourselves happy by owning things, it's all just stuff. No matter how much we accumulate during your life, it all gets left behind. We can't take anything with us. It stays here. The pharaohs of Egypt tried lining their tombs with fancy clothing, jewels, food, chariots... and eventually all those things were stolen or put into museums for strange people to look at centuries later.

Our own stuff probably won't end up in glass display cases in fancy museums, but we won't be getting any satisfaction from any of it once we're gone. Other people aren't going to remember us for how much stuff we had (unless you're a crazy hoarder, in which case that's probably going on your epitaph). They're going to remember us for who we were, how we spent our lives.

We don't have to be afraid of death.

I went with my family to see my grandfather in hospice care a few days before he passed away. In the few moments when he was awake and lucid, one of the things he kept mentioning was that he wasn't afraid to go. He'd lived a long life, he knew his time was coming, and he wasn't afraid.

Whether this was due to his religious beliefs or not, I don't know. But it's worth noting. Many people fear death, they're afraid of what's on the other side, they're afraid of leaving things undone, of what their absence will do to the world. But in the long run, that fear changes nothing. We can't outrun death, we can only make the best of our time before it catches up with us. Whether we believe in an afterlife or not, death will claim all of us. The only purpose fear can serve is to motivate us to make the best of our time. What happens after (if anything), will happen regardless of how afraid of it we are.

We are social creatures, whether we like it or not.

I mentioned my grandfather and I were never close. It was just one of those family things, where various bits of drama and tension over the years between the various generations added up. We saw them for Christmas, maybe Easter, for Thanksgiving dinner sometimes, and that was about it. He was a fairly terse man, so whenever we did see him it wasn't a particularly emotionally-fraught event.

But lying alone in a hospice bed apparently made him think about family and people he'd like to see. He asked to see my sister and me (among others), despite generally having not had much to do with us in years past. At the end, faced with his own mortality, he wanted one last chance to see his family, to be surrounded by those who should care for him.

Too often we focus on the negatives around us, all the things that have gone wrong, the bits of life we don't like, the anger and bitterness and drama, when we should be taking every opportunity to focus on the bright sides. The people we care about, the relationships that matter. We don't have to leave this world lying alone, regretting the bridges we burned behind us. We can go out surrounded by people who care about us, people whose lives we've touched and whose lives have touched us.

But we have to pay attention to those relationships during our lives, like caring for a garden. If we leave them unattended until the last minute when we suddenly decide they do mean something after all, it'll be too late.

Life is too serious to be taken so seriously.

No matter what we do, we need to enjoy our time here. We do no one any good by slogging our way through life scowling at everything and enjoying nothing. Take the time to smell the roses, as they say, even if you get pricked by a few thorns along the way.

Personal

Opportunity and Chaos

Today is my last day at the company where I've spent the last six years. Tomorrow is my first day of exploring a world filled with potentially terrifying opportunities.

As part of an organizational restructuring within my department, the work I've been responsible for over the last two years was merged into a different role. I declined to pursue any of the other positions available, having decided they weren't good matches for my abilities or – more importantly – my interests. So it happens that today, September 30, 2013, is my last day. I leave knowing my experiences at the company, both good and bad, have helped shape me and my career, helped focus me.

The first question everyone asks when they find out I'm leaving is, "where are you going?" The assumption is always that there's a definite plan, that there's something already set up and waiting, that there's another cubicle waiting to be filled somewhere the next day.

Except, there isn't.

What will I do? At first, sleep in. No bleating of an alarm clock to intrude on my blissful sleep, no status meetings, just me and my pillow. Then I'll be taking some time for life – travel, exploring, seeing places I've never seen before. Catching up on my reading list. (Read: roadtrip!)

After that is a vast expanse of The Unknown. There's no defined plan. No clearly-marked path of life to point to and say, "yep, it's all plotted out neatly." The answer to everyone's question is "I don't know." And that seems to freak everyone out. It freaks me out too. But that's okay. It needs to be okay. We need to learn to cope with the unknown in ways that don't always involve fear and panic. There will always be unknowns in life, some bigger than others, some more easily negotiated, but ever present. On the grand scale, changing or losing jobs is pretty insignificant.¹

So no, there's nothing slated to immediately fill the void. But it's amazingly liberating.

I can do anything.

I can stay here. I can (actually, will) move away. I can find another job just like the one I had, or I can find a job in a completely different field. I can lay on the couch for a week straight downing pizza rolls and Mountain Dew, or I can go to the gym every day and explore the limits of my fragile physical existence. I can take up yoga. I can learn the finer points of the Elvish languages.

Life becomes all about possibilities, which feels like a better mindset than outright panic. (Though I'll admit to my share of anxiety over the last few weeks.)

Today is the end of one opportunity that opened six years ago, and the beginning of a whole new slew of opportunities that may be perfect or may just be stepping stones to The One True Thing.

There's no plan. And that's okay.


¹ I don't wish to belittle the hardship of losing a job, particularly in the current state of the economy when many are struggling. I'm by no means rich, but through a combination of good fortune (getting out of college with no student debt) and common sense money management (mainly, spend less than you make) I'll survive.

Personal

Time for Life

My girlfriend and I recently took a roadtrip to northern Minnesota for a weekend. After an eternity in the car, we arrived to a land of trees, and giant lakes, and more trees. And porcupines.

We got to spend a good portion of the weekend trampling through the woods with her dog, ducking under branches and stepping over fallen trees, breathing amazingly clean, crisp winter air, with leaves and dirt and sticks crunching under our boots.

And then the weekend ended and we returned home, to a world of concrete and asphalt and car exhaust. No me gusta.

After spending even one weekend just enjoying the beautiful outdoors and being free of any real responsibilities, coming back to a life of sitting at a computer all day was jarring and unwelcome and distasteful.

Then I see an article about a 2,650 mile trail from Mexico to Canada that people take five months to hike, and it makes me sad because there’s no way I can take five months off of work to do something like that. (Not that I would survive that kind of hike right now anyway.) I don’t have anywhere near the kind of vacation day availability that such a trek would require. And I came to a realization. I am tired of having my life dictated by when I have to be back at work.

Continue reading “Time for Life”
Personal

Things for Other People

I have no need for a kitchen table. The majority of my eating is done:

  1. From the coffee table while sitting on the couch
  2. From the coffee table while sitting on the floor in front of the couch, because couches are difficult
  3. While staring absentmindedly at my reflection in the mirror over my kitchen sink
  4. From the side of my desk as I try to avoid getting crumbs on my laptop while browsing the internet which I could just as easily do in five minutes once my dinner is done but that’s five whole minutes and it’s so long from now

And four chairs? I have no need for four kitchen table chairs. You know why the table or those chairs exist in my home? For other people. For the once in a while occasion where other people come over and expect somewhere to sit that doesn’t involve pretending they’re in an opium den with no opium. Because society, man. Society.

I looked around the apartment and realized that probably three quarters of my belongings have no reason for existing most of the time. I’m one guy – I don’t need a couch and two chairs and a footrest and a beanbag ottoman. You know what the ottoman gets used for the most? Holding the spare PS3 controller while it’s charging.

Very little of what I own is actually for me. It’s for other people. Chairs for other people to sit on. A tiny little overburdened window-mounted air conditioner so other people don’t die of heatstroke when they walk into my tropical apartment in the summer. Blankets so other people don’t lose appendages to frostbite when they walk into my meatlocker of an apartment in the winter.

There are three different sets of plates in my kitchen cabinets. Three. Different. Sets. Know how many I use? One. One set. One set of four identical black plates. Why are the others there? For when other people come over to eat and don’t want to share plates. The nerve of some people.

I could easily get rid of about half of my stuff and move into a cardboard box but it gets cold here and it’s hard to get a permit to install a proper furnace in those. So instead of adopting a transient nomadic lifestyle, it’s time to start stripping some of this stuff out of my life.

Because it’s just stuff.

Stuff I don’t need. Stuff that exists for no reason other than that other people may occasionally use it. And that’s a terrible reason to own things. Fortunately I’ve always had a pretty strong ability to avoid buying stuff just because I want it – if I don’t need it and it’s not a particularly emotionally compelling work of art, it’s staying on the shelf.

There’s a difference between being able to have something, and needing to have something. It’s important to know the difference. Otherwise you just end up owning things for other people, and those things end up owning you.

Personal

Death and Your Digital Posterity

You are going to die.

It’s okay, it happens to the best of us. But it is going to happen. We may not know when exactly you’ll succumb to the Reaper, but eventually the bell will toll for thee. Then, presumably, those left among the living will be tasked with handling the aftermath.

It’s likely you’ll have left some physical remnants behind – some furniture, maybe a few books, your prized peanut butter jar collection, whatever. We as a species have had some experience with death over the centuries, so the process of dealing with all that stuff is pretty well defined by now. But what about your digital life?

For most survivors, coping with the physical possessions and conventional assets of the departed can be overwhelming enough, but at least there are parameters and precedents. Even if a houseful of objects is liquidated through an estate sale or simply junked, mechanisms exist to ensure some sort of definitive outcome, even in the absence of a will. And there’s no way of ignoring or forgetting it: eventually the stuff will have to be dealt with.

Bit-based personal effects are different. Survivors may not be aware of the deceased’s full digital hoard, or they may not have the passwords to access the caches they do know about. They may be uncertain to the point of inaction about how to approach the problem at all.

Cyberspace When You’re Dead by Rob Walker, for The New York Times. You should really read that article – it’s quite good.

When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, we started sorting through the various papers and effects she left behind. Among them was a fairly well-documented family tree dating back a couple hundred years, along with a handful of newspaper clippings about this family member or that. But none of it really gives a sense of who those people were, no sense of what their lives encompassed. All those moments have been lost in time, like tears in rain.

Continue reading “Death and Your Digital Posterity”