Have you ever felt that a simple quote can encapsulate all that life is about? Every now and then, I come across one that just hits the nail precisely on the head. One of my all-time favorite quotes is from the little-known 1993 film My Life, starring Michael Keaton. As a man faced with a terminal disease and imminent death at a relatively early age, his character, knowing that he had, theretofore, simply been too busy being successful and too hard-edged to love fully, laments, “Death is the worst way to learn about living.”
When I first encountered this movie nearly twenty years ago, I was, admittedly, moved by such a revelation and the underlying, accompanying sentiment, and I recall adding the quote to my incessantly-increasing collection of motivational clippings, and I, at the time, incorporated it into my own personal approach to life (or at least I tried to), feeling that we shouldn’t have to wait until our own death to recognize the value of life and to learn about how we should live in the first place.
Undoubtedly, I believed fully in the rationale behind the message, yet soon after seeing the movie, I discovered a new twist on the idea, one that I considered even more poignant than the quote itself—and I still do, for I learned that death is, perhaps, the best way to learn about living.
The summer after I saw My Life, I was going through some personal issues and profound life changes, wondering how I was going to make the most of my seemingly-not-very-marketable liberal arts degree. Moreover, I was torn between possibly joining the US Army, which would have meant selling my soul to pay off my undergraduate loans, and potentially moving to South America to teach English, an undertaking that would not have allowed me to make payments towards my college debts, requiring me to put them in deferment instead. On one particular afternoon, burdened with emotional challenges and worry, I took a solo road trip out into the countryside southeast of Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA) in order to clear my mind and to get some fresh air.
Along a desolate stretch of rural road, while crossing through endless farmlands, I searched for a site at which I could write in my journal without any thought-blocking distractions, for I often wrote my best while immersed in my surroundings, solo, and, being prone to inattentiveness, the setting had to be, more often than not, peaceful and serene. To find a place to unwind without others milling around was my goal, and this locale appeared to be the right choice.
At one spot along the roadway, my curiosity piqued, I pulled my Chevy Cavalier off the road, entering an antiquated, rusted iron gate. I then pulled on to a dusty gravel lane, which led lackadaisically into an idyllic, long-forgotten provincial cemetery. It sounds so cliché, but I had felt something magically magnetic attract me to the place as I drove by the first time, and I had done a U-turn a quarter mile down the road to reevaluate the otherwise nondescript turnoff. Something wanted me to go there.
The upshot of my visit to the cemetery is that I wrote in my journal later that I learned about life in that partially forsaken graveyard. What I discovered inside those gates was something I’ve long since tried to carry with me, and I hope to maintain a similar approach to life for the duration of my time here on earth, at least in my current state of existence.
During my visit, I was initially confronted, internally, with a slight conflict of interest, for I knew deep inside that cemeteries exist for visitors to come and pay their respects to their lost relatives, loved ones, and friends. Consequently, I felt guilty that I was encroaching on their rights, spending time there for selfish reasons, based on my own needs for self-reflection and solitude. However, because it was such a lonesome location, I figured I would not actually get in anyone’s way nor disturb someone’s visit—especially because there was nobody else present. I wasn’t there to create a ruckus by any means, and I didn’t want to cause a stir; I simply came to discreetly consider life. Alone. Or at least alone in the realm of what we usually consider plausible.
For some now unknown time, I unhurriedly walked the grounds just to take in the names and dates marking the headstones. Along each side of the gravel road, which divided the cemetery into two roughly equal parts, I noticed a number of fresh graves, but going off in both directions, older tombstones dotted the landscape. From a distance, I saw more dilapidated and decrepit grave markers off towards the back of the graveyard, down a slight hill. They immediately appealed to me.
It was not that the sites of the more-recently deceased weren’t worthy of my respect and time, but I simply found myself intrigued by the oldest graves beneath a grove of even older oak trees. As it is with seeing any marker of historical significance, I feel a sense of awe when I witness something time honored and enduring. Captivated and curious, I strolled down the gravel lane into the shadows of the oaks, hoping to find some answers there.
Located near a fallen barbed-wire fence marking the backstretch of the cemetery, which was nearly engulfed by the surrounding forest, lay a seemingly ancient headstone, the kind that exudes the lure of bygone days. Crooked to a degree reminiscent of Pisa’s leaning tower, chipped along the top edge, and worn from countless years of Minnesota’s unforgiving climate, it was mostly covered in crusty lichens—thus, the inscription was barely legible. I diligently scraped off the lichens, letter by letter and number by number, with a small twig I found lying nearby.
His name was Jonathan Wellington, and he had lived from 1866 until 1890. When he breathed his last breath, he was roughly the same age as I was during this time.
Since he had died so long ago and because he was buried in such a remote section of the graveyard, I figured I very well might have been the only person to visit his grave in countless decades. An eerie sense of accomplishment and purpose came over me as I sat to spend time with him.
We all have moments in life that we feel are better left unsaid or kept secretly within us until our deathbeds. Often times, we remain reluctantly reticent lest others deem us peculiar or, possibly, even psycho. This perhaps could be one of those moments, for—even though I am not embarrassed to admit it—I spoke to Jonathan’s grave that day, feeling strangely enlightened by doing so. I can see how someone might label that behavior as certifiable, for it wasn’t just some contemplative internal dialogue I was engaging in. I was chatting away with the lad (though I don’t claim to have gotten direct answers from him—so please don’t call the asylum on me, yet).
His state of nonexistence was a catalyst for contemplation of my own life and eventual, inevitable death, and I simply opted to ponder those musings out loud that day. I asked questions of him, and I guessed as to what his responses might be—enabling me to sort through the outcomes and possibilities of it all, this thing called life. Through my one-sided interaction, at least as it appeared to entail on the surface, I was able to guide my own thinking about my existence.
Among numerous queries, I wondered about the following, some of which I speculated about aloud:
How many people attended his funeral? Just a few, or was he immeasurably popular? Perhaps he was a loner, though, so no one really cared. Who in attendance cried and endlessly grieved, languishing at the thought of losing a loved one? Who placed flowers on his casket; who spit on his grave? Were there antagonistic observers who felt a bit of relief or perhaps even sadistic joy? Were there women there who were regretful about never disclosing their attraction to and feelings for him? Or were there women in attendance whom he had loved yet never told? Was his life full of pleasure and immeasurable happiness or misery and antagonizing anxiety? Did he fulfill his dreams at all? Or was he perhaps an underachiever who never strove to meet his goals? Was it all worthwhile? Was he happy? Did he know he was going to die? How did death overtake him?
Moreover, I desperately desired to know who had come to visit his grave over the decades since he had died and when it was that the last person came to pay his/her respects. Perhaps nobody had ever come to see him. Perhaps, as the years passed, close relatives and friends dropped like flies, and distant relatives forgot about him over time, losing track of the past and those who had passed. Here I was, however, a complete stranger, and I wanted to whittle away a couple of hours with him.
I knew nothing about him, obviously, except for his name and his age when he had ceased living. At one point, I was overwhelmed, and I found myself momentarily queasy about the possibility that someday, if I even have a burial plot somewhere, someone may come across my grave and, thus, experience then what I had encountered that very day. It made me feel utterly insignificant.
Countless, faceless billions have come before me, and innumerable billions, it stands to reason, unless we destroy ourselves as a species, should follow me. “Why on earth would I matter?” I found myself asking. Unless I were to accomplish something extraordinary in my life, I realized, something that will go down in an encyclopedia or make the evening news, I will simply be a mere nanosecond tick or tock of life on the perpetually winding clock of history.
Having spent invaluable time reflecting, questioning (both him and myself), and absorbing, I eventually decided to walk back along the gravel road to my car. Perhaps two hours had passed since I’d arrived. Casting elongated shadows behind me, the sun began its own path of its daily demise, seeming to be confidently aware of its own reawakening to transpire the next day.
To add to the melancholic atmosphere of it all, though not intentionally so—in the sense of being cognizant of the reasons behind the decision, I put an Enya music cassette in my Chevy’s stereo and rolled down the windows so that I could listen to it while leaning languidly against the side of the car, ready to continue my mental and spiritual probing and preoccupied brooding as I observed the sun retiring under the bed sheets of the horizon.
The mood was right to really get into my thoughts, and I was, questioning all that was wrong with life—and barely paying attention to the wee voice inside my head that feebly tried to reassure me that life is sometimes just fine. I was so entranced in my pensive ruminations that I didn’t notice a rickety, rusty jalopy approach from my right, until it was directly in front of me.
From within the shadowy confines of the car emanated a voice, coming through the lowered window, arriving to my senses before the visual image of who had actually uttered it, which proclaimed, “Hey, it can’t be all that bad.” When my focus finally caught a glimpse of the woman inside, I saw her nodding towards the tombstones nearby, prompting me to consider that my life, even with all the recent tumult I’d experienced, wasn’t as bad as, well, their… lack of life, if you will.
Though I knew deep down that it wasn’t fair to judge her as such, based on her appearance and that she was driving such a piece of crap vehicle, I thought she seemed like a simple woman; however, her advice was downright profound. She was right. Nothing that I was experiencing then in my life could have been as “bad” as the status of those who were surrounding me at the moment. They were dead. I was alive. That was something. Anything was better than what the deceased nearby were feeling and facing, at least from what I could tell based on my own inadequate understanding of the universe.
Around the time that I had visited Jonathan’s grave that day, I had also been seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. After my initial session with said shrink, I felt as if I had completely wasted my money, for she wasn’t able to offer any counsel that I considered weighty or insightful, but there in that idyllic cemetery, without any plead for guidance, I was offered a poetically poignant outlook that permitted a promising paradigm shift on the spot, helpful advice that I have carried with me for the last eighteen years (or that I have, as I have said, at a minimum, tried to follow). No matter how troublesome, perplexing, daunting and challenging this path of mine gets, and no matter how hopeless I periodically allow myself to be, I should be wholly grateful that I still have the gift of life. The alternative is nothingness and nonexistence, so I’ll surely take existence as a first choice. Any day.