“We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts not breaths; in feelings, not in figures on a dial. We should count time by heart throbs.”
— Philip James Bailey, “Festus”
I am one of those people gifted with an acute awareness of my mortality and a near constant anxiety over the amount of time I have left. There is nothing wrong with me—that I know of. I have no reason to think I won’t live to a miserable old age. I have no reason to be so afraid and yet; I suffer from terrible death anxiety. I lay awake most nights staring at the ceiling contemplating what death means and what it means to be a being that will die. The thoughts have begun to seep into the the daytime, stopping me in my tracks and bringing tears to my eyes. I’m obsessed, in the worst way. I’m scared, and I’m angry too, and I don’t know how to stop thinking about the end so that I can finally live.
I want to stop seeing all this time flying by and start seeing all the life I have in and around me instead. I want to be free, but I don’t understand how I can when my life seems so small and death, even if it comes 50 years from now, feels close enough to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. How is everyone else doing it?
When I reach out to tell people how I am feeling and get a little advice and reassurance I get the most puzzling looks and responses. No one seems to be crushed under inevitability the way that I am. No one else seems to be lying awake at night with their heart pounding in their ears wondering when the end might find them and how. No one worries how long it will take to be forgotten by the world and no one is devastated by the unfairness of it all. I don’t understand why I feel time slipping through my hands so painfully and no one else does.
I know I need help, but it’s hard to admit I am so weak and strange. I suppose I believe I’m somewhat beyond help or that there is no help I can be given by another person that I can’t give myself.
Still, I long to talk to people who suffer the way I do. I want to know I am not alone. I want someone to understand that to me the rest of humanity must be walking around blind to be so calm. There has to be someone out there who understand that this life feels like nothing but a death march to me.
I’ve tried to live mindfully, aware of every minute I am alive but I think I only got half the picture and that is why I suffer so now. When I became aware of time passing this way, I wanted to hold onto it, but no matter how hard I tried every moment they keep slipping, slipping, slipping, wasted and irretrievable out of my reach. And that is all I can see of my life now. All I see is how I am always dying. All I see is that I can never go back. I live in near constant panic over all the choices I have left to make, and the ones I won’t get to make before it all goes dark. I am furious over all the life I won’t get to live as the eons pass without me.
Becoming aware of every moment means becoming aware of how few moments there will be. Seeing what you have doesn’t stop you from wishing for what you can’t. Taking control of your life doesn’t stop you from seeing what you can never control. Living doesn’t stop you from dying one day.
So, I guess I need a new perspective. I need to find out what it is I am missing that everyone else has grasped.
I’ve been thinking to myself, rationalizing and trying to make sense of my fear of dying, of leaving my work unfinished, of one day not being, and of being forgotten. I try to remind myself that I have time and that even if I didn’t, even if the end came for me this very moment, I have had a good life. Not the best life, not exactly the life I planned, but a life most people in the world only dream of. I have been loved, and I have been happy more often than not, and maybe that is the answer to my problem.
Maybe instead of looking at what I won’t have, I need to focus on what I could have. Maybe I measure time all wrong, and that is why there seems to be so little of it left. Maybe, for humans, time is best measured in memorable moments, and emotion invoked.
So, what if I stopped counting all those seconds? Most of them were empty anyway and, if I’m honest, I hardly remember them once they are gone. Maybe a richer life isn’t found by hoarding time but in bringing time to life? The seconds that matter are the ones full of wanting and connection, of passion and curiosity, of novelty. I need to stop trying to hold on to every moment, trying to freeze myself and everything I love in place as if I could stay any longer by doing so. I need to move and make things happen.
After all, the only time I am not worrying about when my heart would stop beating is when it was beating out of love, or fear, or excitement. The only time I am not worrying about how much time I have left is when my time is filled up doing something new, fun, or fulfilling. I’ve become stagnant, tightened and tied up, I need to be loose, to laugh more, to let go!
If death is to come either way, if time is going to slip away no matter how tight my grip, I suppose it all ought to make it worth every second. My heart ought to come alive whenever possible. I should be learning, doing, loving, yearning, every day. I have to cling to the right things and measure time in laughter, kisses, candies, fears, and triumphs. I need more good books, good friends, new experiences, and new ways of living.
I don’t even think I need to make any huge changes in my life. I have plenty of love and laughter around me I only need to take the time to notice it and muster the courage to participate in it. In the moments where it doesn’t exist, I can certainly create it and make other lives as rich as they make mine. Even when I am alone, I can at least love myself. I can learn to enjoy my own company and make even the most mundane activities into a joy simply by being grateful and noticing the miracle that my life is.
I have only so much control over the length of my life, but the width and weight of it are up to me. I can have more life by measuring it by heart throbs rather than the ticking of a clock.
Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.