Today’s flashback post, “Idle Dreams, pt. 87” was originally published in December 2007:

Like all the men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment.

— Jorge Luis Borges, “The Lottery in Babylon”

The bad news is that I didn’t win the lottery. The good news is that I am, once again, unencumbered by fear. The fear of death, to be precise. There was a moment yesterday when, in contemplation of the wondrous possibility of instantaneous wealth, I was struck by the idea that those golden millions might come with their own peculiar anxieties. After all, I would suddenly have 28 million new reasons to fear an unexpected, untimely demise. The only thing a rich man needs, but cannot buy, is the time to enjoy his bounty.

Though it pains me to admit this, life really would be more precious if I had a few extra zeroes to my name. I despise relativism, but here too it seems inescapable. I want to believe that the subjective value of life is a universal constant, in the same way that I believe its objective value to be. The life of a pauper is ‘worth’ as much as that of a prince – but I certainly know that I would be fonder of my life as the latter. Fonder … and far more invested in ensuring its longevity.

This is not to say that I disdain my current (admittedly comfortable) existence. I have no death wish – but I’ve made peace with my death. Our peace accord is not conditional on any particular hope on my part that death will be considerate in its timing. I can honestly say that, whether tomorrow or in 40 years’ time, I am ready to accept the inevitable with good grace. My loved ones may rest easy in the knowledge that I don’t plan on hanging about in some unappealing ethereal form, throwing their best china around. Nor is my equanimity predicated on any expectation regarding the nature of the ‘great’ thereafter; my only wish is to disprove the theory of reincarnation, which strikes me as a version of Hell worthy of a Dante.

My relationship with my own mortality hasn’t always been so cordial. There was a moment, now lost in the hazy outer reaches of my childhood memories, when I first confronted the idea of death – and came away defeated by the very enormity of it. Tom Stoppard put it best:

Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. Must have been shattering.

And so it was. But, eventually, I overcame that first, and most enduring, disillusionment of life. I reached a truce with my mortality. So it was rather an unpleasant epiphany to realize just how fragile that détente has always been. Throw a few millions into the mix, and my Zen-inness would evaporate before the ink on my resignation letter could dry. Death is all very well, but not when one might be enjoying life on a private yacht in the Mediterranean. Provided the money outlasts one’s ability to squander it, one might conceivably arrive at a psychological moment when embarking upon some Faustian bargain for the sake of a few more years’ decadence seems like a good deal.

Man’s fascination with the prolongation of life beyond its natural boundaries has always struck me as a craven instinct, an attempt to deny the fundamental nature of humanity. Though understandable in motive – the desire to transcend the human condition is a part of the human condition – the fight against mortality remains, to me, a childish paroxysm against the world’s ineffability. It pains me to admit that I’m far more susceptible to it, in the right circumstances, than I might have hoped.

So, to go back to the beginning – perhaps the good news is that I haven’t won the lottery yet. If real happiness comes from detachment, as some Buddhists might say, not being able to afford certain experiences means that I have no reason to fear their loss. [Though, as an aside, I do think that it would be facetious, as well as grotesquely unfair, to suggest that the poor are, or ought to be, the happiest people in the world.] This brings me to a dichotomy: what affords greater freedom? Most would agree that wealth can buy, if not direct happiness, an almost infinite measure of freedom – the ability to do as one desires, subject only to the laws of physics and the limits of one’s Swiss bank account – which is, arguably, a better deal. But at what point does that freedom become a golden cage? Maybe that’s a rhetorical question. Nestled in luxurious captivity, would you even care?


August 2012: Previously, in my more facetious moments, I used to say that dying was the greatest adventure known to mankind in the 21st century, since it would involve launching head first (or, perhaps, feet first) into the last unknown, un-chartered territory: the “great beyond”. Let’s just say that I have less zest for that adventure now that I am a parent. My death is no longer merely a personal matter. I do not live for my child alone, but I am responsible for him, and it is a responsibility that transcends almost all other considerations. The thought of death again terrifies, not for any personal reasons, but because of its consequences for my son. If the prospect of eternal life beckons as never before, it’s because of the opportunities it would offer to continue to observe my son (and his children’s children) live out his life in its fullness. Perhaps being a chronically over-protective ghost has its advantages. Still, I promise to leave the china alone.

When was the last time you had a fear of death?

1 Comment on Friday Flashback: Death and the Lotto

  1. I think people fear death in large measure because of the ‘great beyond’ referenced. People who get beyond magical, tribal thinking may still fear the ‘end’.

    I don’t fear the time before my birth. I see no difference for *me* after my death, other than my frail debris’ expedited decomposition.

    I’m not a nihilist, though, because I recognize the problem posed by death: the sadness and loss experienced by family and friends (which unfortunately can’t be cancelled out by the joy of some others).

    Maybe I’m just a wannabe Stoic — the Ancient Greek equivalent of an Internet Tough Guy.