When Death Knocks
“Whether it is a time of inner dignity and honor or a pitiful demise is completely reliant on how we live our lives right now, today. In that sense, the ‘moment of death’ truly exists in the present.” Daisaku Ikea
My father’s diagnosis of a grade-4 angioblastoma, a fast-growing brain tumor, facilitated a hard realization: over the last two years I have been a very busy writer but not a very productive one.
I would very much like to blame my phone and those confounded Facebook and Instagram and Twitter apps. After all those billion-dollar corporations spend millions of dollars every year figuring out which colors and flashing icons will induce me to retweet, heart, like, friend and share. They have to. What is Facebook but billions of posts, comments and shares written by us, for free? Zuckerberg, et al thank us for our efforts by flooding our streams with ads and dreck and junk to enhance the value of their business, which is our eyeballs.
I get it. They have money to make and might as well make it off our attention as our bodies or stomachs or minds.
Had I received something real in return, I might be happy. But I have invested thousands of hours of my life in these apps, all resulting in a diminution in my ability to focus. I lost my attention.
And I did it to myself. No one forced me to engage these applications of social media. Staring at the lemon-sized tumor in the CT scan, I realized I had been living my life like I had all the time in the world, time to spend arguing with people on a screen, judging my photographic and writing work by the number of likes or comments I got, time to spend agonizing and rewriting one stupid sentence in a 1000-word essay that took me weeks to complete, worrying about how my word choice might affect the share-worthiness of my article.
Each like or comment or share seemed like something in the moment. Over days and weeks and years they for me accumulated to few finished writing projects, or a life of no consequence. A grade-4 glioblastoma, the fastest growing brain tumor known to oncologists (it went from smaller than the diameter of a pin head to the size of a lemon in 89 days), burns up a lot of karma, a hell of a lot. So much that I seem to approach each day like a man with his head on fire searching for a lake.
When death came knocking for my father I had a choice. Run and hide in the closet or open the door and step into reality, as humiliating and bracing as it felt.
The phone went into off mode. I am in the process of buying a dumb phone for voice and simple texting. I don’t go on to the internet before noon or after 7 pm. My attention seems just a little bit wider now, like I’ve been able to stitch together two quilt squares after years of being unable to find a thread and needle.
I have read about 1000 pages in ten days, written more consistently than I have in months and finished a two year project i had been lollygagging around on. Time has foreshortened yet deepened.
Before the arrival of the glioblastoma I believed time was unbounded. I knew I was going to die but how my death related to time, the inexorably ticking of seconds on the clock of my life, I hadn’t a clue. The tumor brought a clarity to my thinking about time.
“The trouble is,” Buddha said, “you think you have time.”
With no end to time, I wasted so much of it in busy writing, little essays going nowhere, novels started and stopped, stories left undone.
With an end to time, I have endeavored to finish what I start, no matter how bad the writing is. Nothing, not even death, can erase a productive writing life.
My father’s diagnosis has given me this wisdom.
I know that my single human life on our Earth, orbiting around our Sun, one star among the billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, one galaxy among the billions of galaxies in the Universe, is of no consequence. Yet I it is my life and important to me. What else am I going to do?
The busy approach got me a lot half finished writing.
The productive approach has gotten me more words and more finished projects since April 2018 than the previous 18 months.
Either way I know I will die. Death is inevitable. Today I choose productivity and completion.