“We’re all going to die, all of us. What a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities. We are eaten up by nothing.”
Yes, we’re all going to die. You and me and everyone else. One day, eventually, that fateful moment will come calling and take us all away.
When we die isn’t even really the interesting question, as once you’re dead you won’t be around to care about what you did or didn’t do.
No, the interesting question is how we die. Will it be cancer? Cardiac arrest? Anthrax attack? Choking on a pretzel?
Me? I’m holding out for parachute failure. Or maybe a plane crash. OK, not really, but sometimes when I’m on a plane, and we’re landing and there’s terrible weather, I start daydreaming about what a crash would be like—the oxygen masks falling, women shrieking, babies crying. Maybe I’d reach across the aisle and hold a total stranger’s hand in a final dramatic gesture as we wait for the inevitable together. The earth would sweep upon us and together we’d be slammed into eternity.
Luckily that hasn’t happened yet. But it’s exciting to think about.
When we think about our own deaths, we typically think about the final moments. The hospital beds. The crying family. The ambulances. We don’t think about the long string of choices and habits which lead to those final moments.
You could say that our death is a work-in-progress over the course of our lives—each breath, each bite, each swallow, each late night and missed traffic light, each laugh and scream and cry and crashing fist and lonely sigh—they each bring us one step closer to our own dramatic denouement from this world.
So the better question isn’t when you’re going to die. It’s what are you choosing as your vehicle to get there? If everything you do each day brings you closer to death in its own unique and subtle way, then what are you choosing to let kill you?
With Passion Comes Pain
The title of this article is a quote from the author and poet Charles Bukowski. This entire article kind of doubles as an ode to him.
Bukowski was a shameless drinker, womanizer, and all-around fuck up. He would get drunk on stage at his poetry readings and verbally abuse his audience. He gambled a lot of his money away and had an unfortunate habit of exposing himself in public.
But underneath Bukowski’s disgusting exterior was a deep and introspective man with more character than most. Bukowski spent most of his life broke, drunk, and getting fired from various jobs. Eventually, he ended up working in a post office filing letters. All his life he wrote fruitlessly, a total unknown and a loser. He wrote for almost 30 years before finally getting his first book deal.1 It was a meager deal. When accepting it, he wrote, “I have one of two choices—stay in the post office and go crazy… or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”
In my opinion, the honesty in his writing—his fears, failures, regrets, self-destruction, emotional dysfunction—it is unparalleled. He will tell you the best and worst of himself without flinching, without shifting his eyes or even muttering a “sorry about that” as an afterthought. He wrote about both shame and pride without qualification. His writing was equanimous—a silent embrace of the horrible and beautiful man that he was.
And what Bukowski understood, which most people don’t, is that the best things in life can sometimes be ugly. Life is messy, and we’re all a little screwed up in our own special snowflake kind of way. He never understood the baby boomer obsession with peace and happiness or the idealism that came along with it. He understood that you don’t get one side without the other. You don’t get love without pain. You don’t get meaning and profundity without sacrifice.
The concept of life purpose has exploded in popularity in recent decades. We don’t just want to make money or build a secure career. We want to do something important. We want to be noticed. We want to be looked up to.
Meaning is the new luxury.
But like any other luxury, we idealize meaning. People believe that all you have to do is find the thing—that one bloody thing!—that you are “meant” to do, and suddenly, everything will click into place. You’ll do it until the day you die and always feel fulfilled and happy and prance with unicorns and rainbows while making a million dollars in your pajamas.
But we just need that one thing—if only we knew what we were meant to do, then everything would fall into place!
And while it’s possible to brainstorm some ideas to help one get started, finding meaning and purpose is not a five-day spa retreat. It’s a fucking hike through mud and shit with golf-ball-sized hail pelting you in the face. And you have to love it. You really have to love it.
As Bukowski said, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
Finding the passion and purpose in your life is a trial-by-fire process. You don’t simply wake up one day and become happy doing one thing forever and ever. Like death, it’s a constant work-in-progress. You must try something, pay attention to how it feels, adjust and then try again. Nobody gets it right on the first try, or the tenth or sometimes even the two-hundredth.
And then, when you do get it right, it’s liable to one day change. Because you change.
Writing is easy; all you have to do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.
And what Bukowski understood more than most was that doing what you love is not always loving what you do. There’s an inherent sacrifice to it. Just like choosing a spouse, it’s not choosing someone who makes you happy all the time, it’s choosing somebody who you want to be with even when they’re pissing you off.
It’s something that feels like an inevitability, like you have no choice because this is simply who you are, dysfunction and all. It’s your chosen vehicle towards death. And you’re happy to let it take you there. But you’re under no illusions that it won’t be a bumpy ride or without surprises along the way.
- Your study of speech therapy may lead you to voice acting which may turn into a career in children’s cartoons and then you may decide at age 55 that children’s cartoons are corrupted by corporate interests and you spend the rest of your days sketching comics you love but never publish.
- Your interest in fitness may lead you to a deeper interest in posture and form which then gets you into coaching people on body language and sub-communication. This leads you into a consulting business, but after dealing with the surface-level issues for years, you discover that the body molds itself to match repressed emotions. So you take your big consulting pension, say fuck it, and open up an acupuncture and massage clinic where you dedicate the last of your days to promoting mind-body awareness.
Just like few of us experience love at first sight, few will experience passion and meaning at first experience. Like a relationship, we must build it from scratch, piece-by-piece, until after years of brick and sweat, it can stand on its own.
And once we’re there, like a plane in full nosedive, we let it take us to our grave, holding hands, blanketed upon the earth in a laughing roar of wind and fire and love.
“We’re here to laugh at the odds,” Bukowski said, “and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”
And when Death does come, how will he take you?