My senior project was about death. And literature, but most notably, death. I skimmed Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death” and learned about the psychoanalytic basis for fear of mortality; I read some Russian stories in which people died having lived unfulfilling lives. I also spent an entire body paragraph analyzing “The Fault in Our Stars,” but that’s not relevant.
Point is, when my 18th birthday rolled around, mortality was very much on my mind. I considered buying a lottery ticket, but decided to have an existential crisis instead. See, prior to this year, I’d suffered from a crippling heroism characteristic of all spoiled children — I wanted to change the world, to be the next Bill Gates or Michelle Obama. I wanted a Wikipedia page written by someone I’d never met. My goal was to succeed, but I felt I wasn’t successful unless I’d succeeded enough for strangers to know my name.
But then I read Chekhov, Tolstoy, Becker: they all seemed unequivocally to say that our lives are mundane and short and ultimately insignificant to the world as a whole. Probabilistically, a century from now, I will be completely and utterly forgotten. Whatever brief, insignificant legacy I might’ve left will be demolished by the relentless, eroding current of time.
This terrified me. At the cusp of adulthood myself, at the beginning of the story my children will tell, the easiest mental escape was into complete nihilism: life is worthless and nothing we do means anything. But I felt there must be some reason I was here. Some reason 7.6 billion blinking, breathing human beings have slogged through unimaginable suffering, through heartbreak and disaster, to remain blinking and breathing.
And so, on the day of my 18th birthday, I sat outside for a while and brooded. It smelled like summer — vaguely like linen and grass, trees and the way the breeze smells through clean hair. My chest felt tight and heavy, but when I looked down at my fingers they looked just like they’ve always looked. The bronze light on my face stung a little. June beckoned from between green leaves.
Abruptly, I had a change of heart. I figured if I’m bound to turn to nothingness eventually, I may as well enjoy myself while I’m conscious and kicking. I have minimal control over the trajectory of society as a whole, century after century. I do, however, have control over my own lived experience and, to some extent, the experiences of others. So I live primarily to do good, love my loved ones, and make myself happy. I strive for success for my own sake and no one else’s. I don’t need a Wikipedia page, I just need a group of loving friends, a decent self-image and, like, maybe three-ish dogs.
Sure, adulthood is daunting. There’s a lot to not look forward to: unexpected health complications and marital issues, mid-life crises and office bureaucracy. But I push forward for the good times yet to come, the friends I haven’t met and the places I’ll fall in love with. Because if nothing matters, the only thing that matters is the impact I have on the quality of my own life and the quality of lives around me.
Eighteen, 18. Another year has gone and passed, and my fingers look the same as they always have. Adulthood smells like linen and sunlight. Last I checked, I’m still not Bill Gates. But I sort of don’t care anymore. I’m convincing myself that it’s more important to be happy than to be Bill Gates.
What is there to do, but to trudge onwards, one foot then the other, into the breeze and the tempest that follows? I have happy moments ahead and people around me who want me to be healthy and smiling. And with these things, I will trudge forward, through suffering, through long days and longer nights, into oblivion.