About a month or so ago, I was finally starting to see solutions. It seemed like my existential crisis was finally coming to an end. I was excited. I even wrote several blog posts about the solutions I’d found, but by the time I returned to those drafts for a bit of editing before finally putting them up here, I realized the words weren’t really… useful. Or meaningful. I don’t think there exists a word for what exactly I have in mind. The solutions remained solutions, but I still felt just as helpless and hopeless.
I still haven’t overcome death anxiety. It creeps up on me. I’m there, enjoying myself watching our favorite TV shows or engrossed in a story or lost in a podcast about Indian history while doing the chores when suddenly my brain reminds me that someday I’m gonna die and won’t be able to laugh with my family or enjoy fiction or listen to music or podcasts. And then suddenly, I have two contradictory thoughts struggling against each other in my mind. One tells me that sooner or later I’m going to die; the other tells me that since I’m going to die, I should live in this particular moment as much as I can. And in that struggle to figure out what to do, the moment is gone.
A while ago I wrote about simply asking myself the question ‘Did I live today?’ instead of journaling in depth about what I did at the end of every day. Because after all, isn’t living the whole point? I even went on to describe what living meant for me – laughter, meaningful conversations, reading, writing, and so on. And then, once I’d hit publish, I completely forgot to do what I’d said I would – to ask myself if I’d lived.
I knew that it wouldn’t do by merely asking myself if I had really enjoyed life. I had to actually live life in order to give a yes in response. But I wasn’t really doing anything like that. I was doing the things I love, but not as much as or as deeply as I would have liked to.
The main problem though, was that the question – Did I live today? – made me paranoid. Because I knew I had to live to the fullest, I started seeing things that did not fit my definition of ‘living’ as a waste of time. Things like commuting, or discussing the family budget with my mother or the basic mundane things you do every day –eating, bathing, etc. I thought I was missing out on life if I spent even a single second doing things I hadn’t defined as living.
Which is so stupid, to put it simply. Just because it’s not fun doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be doing it. Applying for a voter ID, going to the doctor, discussing family issues may not be fun, but these things are necessary. And they don’t take away anything from life or make you miss out. Instead, they only make living better in the long run. I’d be able to elect a government that I believe will do good, I’ll be able to enjoy things more because of good health, and I’ll have better relationships.
I think where we’ve gone wrong with the whole concept of self-love and living to the fullest. etc. etc. is not telling people that there are some things in life that you can’t avoid for your own sake, things that must be done, things that are necessary but not fun. And that doing these things is good. It’s boring yes, but it’s not taking anything away from life. Your job may not be fun or it may not be contributing to society in a big way, but it gives you the money to feed your family and keep them healthy. It gives you the money to go out with them, travel, eat out, watch movies, make memories. They are means to an end – the end being to live. Living does not mean enjoying literally every second of your life – I don’t even think that’s remotely possible.
It simply means doing the things that make you happy whenever you can. This is something I’ve been trying to explain myself whenever my brain presses the ‘death anxiety’ button the moment I start doing something that’s important but not fun.
I try not to think about death, which I learned is not how you deal with death anxiety. It’s a well-known psychological fact that the more you try to avoid thinking about something, the harder it will be to stop thinking about it. If I tell you to not think about penguins, your mind will think about penguins. Try it. The key is to think of something else.
For me, that something else is love. I recently wrote an email to my mother finally telling her how lonely I felt – it was so personal that I knew I’d be crying hard before even uttering a word, so I had to resort to writing – and I did feel better afterwards, knowing that I’d finally said what I’d wanted to for so long to someone I trusted. But at the same time, it did not make me any less lonelier. It’s easy to daydream about love and marriage or just good old friendship with someone as an antidote to nagging thoughts about death, but you can’t be lonely one day and happily married the next. It takes time.
And the fact that it’ll take time, that’s there are still years to go before I’ll complete my education and get a job and then marry someone – that scares me., because, what if I don’t live that long? What if I die before I even meet a man, let alone the man I’ll end up marrying?
I can already hear voices telling me that life is not just about marriage and love. And I know it isn’t. And I won’t add any buts to this statement because that would be just making excuses for brooding incessantly instead of getting a move on and doing something with my life.
So a couple of days ago I sat down and made a list of around 100 things I want to do. The list didn’t reach 100, but I still had a lot of things on it. Then I started dividing it further into the following categories (with examples):
A. Things that must happen no matter what – Get a Ph.D. in Child Psychology
B. Things that can be done at the same time as the things in list A – Give my sister a better life (leaving it vague deliberately)
C. Would be great if these things happened – Have a snowball fight
D. Would be great if these things happened at all – Meet Ruskin Bond again
I went over the list, again and again, deleting everything I wouldn’t mind not happening. I started with my bucket list and went ahead from there, adding my goals and removing anything that wouldn’t make me feel as if I was missing out on life if they didn’t happen.
The list has around 70 items. In the couple of days that have passed since I made my list, I’ve completed a few items on it and taken first steps towards the major goals (like drawing a list of target colleges for my B.A. in Psychology).
I’m still thinking about death and still looking for a way to accept it in a way that when thoughts of my death or that of my loved ones do come to me, I’m not scared. I want to be able to quickly dismiss the thoughts with ease, just as, say, I do with the thought that time once passed never returns. The transcendence of time doesn’t scare me, and I want to be on the same level of comfort with the thought that I and my loved ones will die someday.
Having a list of the things I really want to do in my life makes things a little easier than when I was sure about some things that I wanted but not all, and the things I did not want.
I have an action plan, and each item on the list is written down in the order of priority. I feel like I’m heading somewhere. True, I’m not spending every wakeful minute working on the list; I’m allowing myself a little leisure and being lenient with myself, but when I’m working, when I’m in the zone, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m working on what I really, really want. That I’m not whiling away my time on things that don’t really make a difference to me.
When I first sat down to make this list, which also included very short-term things like sorting target literary magazines from the dozens of bookmarks I have in my browser, I could think of a ton of things to do. One of the first things that came to mind was the list of unread articles marked in my Pocket account. I’d saved these articles “for later”. I knew I wasn’t going to read them any time sooner. I asked myself if reading those articles would make any (positive) difference to my life, and when the answer was a no, I deleted them. And I felt lighter. I had one less thing to worry about now. I’ve similarly discarded lists of movies to watch, books and videos to check out and so on.
I’ve wiped my slate blank and I’m starting afresh. I suddenly have fewer things to do, though at the same time I have a long list of things to do, only that doing them will give me the life I want, leaving enough space for the unexpected.
I know some of these things may change with time, but at least I have some direction to head towards. I’m not clueless and I know I am doing something with my life. If I had to sum up in a few lines what I want life to be like, I’d say I want it to be full of laughter. I want to spend time with kids and animals and loved ones. I want to read. I want to have someone to love and be loved by. I want to write and write a lot and share it with others. I want to help others as much as I can.
Simple things, yet so great. Not impossible though, right?