Essay: The Greater Part of Us
By Lowell Weber
You ask me, with all the innocence and absurdity of youth, what it is like to know I am dying.
The temptation to perform such a self-examination is not particularly great. But as you ask, one result is to recognize a remorse greater than all others, a remorse too late to amend, that I did not live every day in my youth as though it were my last. I didn’t celebrate every dawn as if it had been my first, every breath as if I had been rescued from drowning, every meal as if I had been saved from starving, every dream and aspiration as if I had been able to construct a new universe.
To be truthful, having the time to reflect on what is lost by death, not to the world or those who know and may love me, but to myself personally, presents a great puzzle. To look back at a long life and review time as telescoped into an instant whose passing seems so swift proves unexpectedly difficult. Of all the moments of all the hours of all the years, few stand out as exceptional. Was my existence filled with so little that was remarkable? Or is my judgement skewed by what might have been and no longer content with what happened? Would I rewrite my personal history if I could? Yes, probably.
My body is not fooled by a condensed memory, it reminds me daily of the long road it’s traveled. Therein lies the riddle. Am I my mind or my body? The answer is I am not a singularity. Life and death have battled within me all my days. “I” am the consciousness that trillions of cells working in concert have devised. I am, we are, a symphony with an arrangement that has taken four billion years to compose. My music will not be lost in death, I will become echo.
If our intelligence were not the artifice we call ‘self’, if we could know, feel, the turbulent life and death of each cell that has built us, we would understand more certainly, expect with a more rational serenity, the death of each of us who are thoughtful, if brief, assemblies. Every cell, with its broad though finite possibility, is essentially the same, the same molecule drives and sustains us all. Persistent, evocative, evolving and willfully pernicious; this remarkable, complex chemical phenomenon reproduces itself prodigiously, disassembles grudgingly and has so organized itself as to never be exactly the same again twice. Our cells are masters of specialization whose concise combination has led to a sentience, to a consciousness that presumes itself to be an individual, one individual among others and through competition and conflict with all of its similar but exotic relatives, to an awareness of a web of interdependence we know as life. The debt owed by we who are unique is death. The unanticipated fee of this self-awareness is to know death is inevitable.
To us death seems a disappointment, a failure, a flaw in our momentous molecule struggling for perpetual continuity. To achieve immortality, we must invent it for ourselves. We have decided we have souls, unilaterally and against all the evidence. Once that assumption is made, like our very cells, the plethora of imaginings can evolve. Yet, immortality is deception. Our best information suggests nothing is immortal, not even our universe. When creation is mortal how can we be otherwise?
Why is that sad?
We are merely, spectacularly, the physics of our atoms, the chemistry of our shared electrons and the unlikely brew of our biology. In death, only the active portion is transposed, only the animation stilled; all the real and substantial essence of us remains, for our longer lived universe remains. The solution of life is drained, but not the cup that held it. Two of the three, our physics and our chemistry, are immune to death. The greater part of us is indestructible.
As elegantly fermented organic matter we can use our senses to divine our improbably fortunate place in the vastness of creation. Our intellect, limited though it is and will remain, can observe the incidental, accidental, timing of our awakening when our perception has something to perceive, sunlight and shadow, a night sky full of disparate objects, and so our extrapolations can envision a future not yet real. Because we can be, often are, wrong in our conclusions, we can celebrate that we are an infinitesimal member an immensely larger creation that has yet to prove itself to be mortal, only eagerly expanding beyond its ability to sustain itself, a predicament we reflect in our biological fecundity.
So you ask me, with all the innocence and absurdity of youth, what it is like to know I am dying.
You might as well ask what it is to know I am normal, a part of and party to a mortally expansive universe that has found a way to scrutinize itself and revel in its ridiculous, almost infinitely unlikely existence. Fear, resignation, despair and all the other negativities we embrace to describe death are indefensible when the reality we are part of is known to us, even if inadequately.
Yet we are terrified. We have frightened ourselves with our fantasies. Because we are simpletons, idiots all. We are not and never have been individuals and so are not eligible for the judgment as individuals by ethereal, anthropomorphic immortals. Our fleeting affair with reason affords us the opportunity to realize the greater part of us is equal in its longevity with creation itself. Our special molecule, altered, recombined, remorseless, carries on elsewhere. It is still ours, still us. We are community and as such, like our cells, share in the destiny of all.
If we must ask forgiveness then let it be for dying, not because it is tragic or unnatural, but because it is an act of thoughtlessness on our part. Perhaps we will do better in some imaginable next time.
Lowell Weber has had short fiction published in a number of online journals. He lives in Minneapolis, MN with his loving wife and affectionate dog.