Not too long ago, I had a birthday which pushed me closer to 40 years old than 30. I took a close look in the mirror, saw a few more gray hairs on my head, and even a few new ones in my eyebrows. In my goddamn eyebrows. Now, if you’re over 40, you’re probably rolling your eyes about now — ready to tell me all about the horrors of life at your advanced age — but you don’t need to; I’ve been worrying about aging and mortality since I was 6 years old.
It all started in the first grade, on the very first day of science class. The teacher held up a rotating model of the solar system, spun the planets around and said:
“These are the planets, and this little guy right here is Earth. See it? That’s us. We orbit this big yellow ball in the middle, called the Sun. The Sun is a star, and like all stars, it is going to swell up someday and become a Red Giant — engulfing the Earth and all the rest of the planets in the solar system — and then it will explode.”
After taking a moment to appreciate the horrified looks upon our adorable little faces, the teacher added:
“But don’t worry… this won’t happen for billions of years. You’ll all be dead long before that happens.”
Time and emotional scarring have no doubt clouded my memory of what our teacher actually said, but I do know the scientific facts presented were lost upon me entirely. Instead, what I learned that day was a deeper, darker truth: I am going to die.
I spent the rest of that afternoon sprawled out on the floor of my classroom, pretending to write numbers for some kind of math lesson or another, when what I was actually doing was staring at the floor, tracing its dusty, pockmarked tiles with my newly hollowed gaze, thinking to myself, I am going to die someday. My Dad is even older than me, so he’ll probably die first. And my Mom is going to die too. But even if we all lived forever, the Sun would just grow really big and burn us all to death anyway. Oh my God, it’s gonna to hurt so bad… And I literally pictured a burning yellow ball of unimaginable scale pressing up against my face, frying the skin off my skull while crushing everything and everyone I’d ever loved into a swelling crescendo of horror and agony.
Although I’m all grown up now, I’ve never forgotten that particular day. Not just because of the brutally honest lesson in astronomy, or the long hours of painful realization and introspection afterward, but because it marked my first awareness of impermanence; that ceaseless metronome ticking away the seconds for all of us. You. Me. The plants and animals. Hell, even the Great Pyramids of Egypt. We’re all dying and eroding back into the stardust from whence we came. And when viewed upon a long enough timeline, absolutely nothing remains the same forever. So if fluctuation is the natural state of things, what is the point of life? Why do we struggle so hard to create things when nothing we make — organic or inorganic — can possibly last longer than a microsecond in the blind, uncaring eyes of the universe?
This is the part where you might suggest I find some religion or seek help for my obvious depression / anxiety disorder, but I don’t need any of those things; I’ve got a German wife. She is pragmatic and down-to-earth, and when she is presented with the big questions regarding life and death, she will restore the warmth to my heart by asking very simply:
“Why does our time on earth have to be limitated?”
If you would like to read another classic Denglish quote, check this one out: My German Wife Explains the Optimal Weather Conditions for Seasonal Allergy Attacks
The really bizarre thing about death and dying in Germany is that, unlike the US, where when you buy a plot in the ground and you’re planted in that hole, it’s essentially for all eternity, in Germany, you typically RENT cemetery lots for something like 50 years. This raises all sorts of questions. The first one is, if your progeny were even motivated to re-new all the leases of their ancestors (and even if it were a reasonable amount of money), at some point it would be totally untenable — how many previous generations of cemetery lots can one person pay for (much less keep track of)? Just forget for a moment the complications that arise when someone has no progeny — who would inherit the responsibility?The second one is, how can folks be expected to do geneological research, since graveyards are one of the key sources of information? And third, of course, is, how can it be that there’s no persistent record that you were even here (at least, as long as the earth is around)?
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“But I don’t need any of those; I’ve got a German wife.” Ha!
When the topic of death comes up in our house (which is often when I’m contemplating driving somewhere on German roads) and I say something about possibly dying in a fiery crash because some oncoming maniac tried to pass in a blind curve, my German husband responds with “Dann morgen haben wir kein Stress mehr” (then as of tomorrow we won’t have to deal with any more stress.). Ah, those realists…
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I hope that works, for you. It’s at least, for me, enjoyable reading, thanks for sharing your German wife (in a sense)!
I’ve been an avid reader of your blog for about a year now and I really enjoy reading each and every one of your posts, but this one in particular struck a chord with me.
You see, when I was about 6 years old, I was watching a documentary about astronomy on TV with my mother. I was having a great life until this guy said in a serious voice how the sun is going to explode in a billion years and it’s basically going to take everything with it but humans will have been long dead by then anyways. At that moment I suddenly realized that I’m going to die. Additionally I had no idea how long a “billion years” might be but it sounded as if it were happening RIGHT NOW. I had my first panic attack immediately afterwards and was inconsolable for the rest of the day. Ever since then I will sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and relive the terror of that day, believing that I’m going to die in the next second.
I’m glad to hear that you’ve found a cure in your hilarious yet pragmatic German wife. My boyfriend on the other hand is still waiting for the ultimate immortality-granting drug to be developed. Personally I believe the sun is going to explode first.
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Haw haw! Great comment. We must not be the only ones to have discovered mortality in this fashion…
Nope, not the only ones, for me it was year 10 science and it has bothered me ever since!!!
Welcome to our little emotionally scarred club, Jenny! :)
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