Time is a game of mirrors — it depends on your point of view. Creativity and productivity are about Life and about learning what it’s all about. Here’s a bit of my journey.
A few years ago, I was sitting in a half-full theater at a provincial Portuguese town, and I was participating in a small Film Festival, the kind that discreetly happens a little bit everywhere, mostly for the selected few. I was watching the short-film session and had enjoyed one or two short movies and suffered through the rest with little surprise or glee. But I was in for a shock. Suddenly they showed one of the best and most effective short-films I ever watched in my half-century Life. It was BACKSTORY by Swedish director Joschka Laukeninks. You can watch it here. It tells the story of a man from the beginning of his Life until the moment of his Death. All you see for most of the movie is the protagonist’s POV in a fast succession of cuts portraying important moments of his Life, narrating his story. As we see this, we are invaded (at least I was) by a rising feeling of oppression. Oppression by Time itself. By the relentless rush towards Death. We feel we already know the story, the story of a man like many others, even though we witness a few surprises as we go along. But it is familiar. We know that story. And it is breathtaking, almost cruel, to see Time passing so fast and so staggeringly. We feel (at least I felt) that there is nothing we control in our lives. Nothing that we can do to make anything different, anything matter. All that’s left, in the end, are those moments that branded the main character the most — in the end, moments of love — maybe what others once called the Foam of the Days — all that comes on top after everything else sinks in. The memories we’re left with after all the fuss, all the wrong decisions, and the right decisions and going through this whole mess that’s Life. And we so much want to have control, to be able to enjoy life but also to make it matter, to make it about us, about our Freedom to Choose. What propels us forward is our Desire. Our ability to want something for ourselves. The Meaning of Life. And yet, sometimes, it almost seems like all we have is the Foam of the Days — what Yates called: the Hopeless Emptiness. So what do we do about it? How do we deal with this? How do we deal with the perennial presence of Death?
Death is always here. Time is a measure of movement, and all movement eventually leads to Death. That’s the law of the Universe. I was taught that from an early age. I was only 1-year-old when my older brother died from brain cancer. He was 3-years-old. I never really knew him. I don’t recall any single moment with him. At least not enough to say it is a real memory instead of something I imagined. Most of the weight of his Life and his Death I picked up from my parents and the people around them. In a sense, my brother’s Death has been with me all my life. Small things — like my parents’ determination to never fly together in the same airplane (if they were both dead, who would take care of me and my siblings?); or the fact that we went to live on an isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic; or that we had an altar with my brother’s picture in our house, and the only time we went to mass was on his birthday and the anniversary of his Death (and I really thought he sat next to Jesus in Heaven) — all this I was later able to link to the existence and subsequent disappearance of my older brother, a bit like a lunar eclipse shows the existence of the Sun. So his Death was always with me. But, in reality, Death is present in everyone’s life. It’s an illusion to think otherwise. It’s both an unwanted and a wanted veil that keeps filling our skies — just like a permanent eclipse.
This dance with Death gained more perverse contours as I got older. There was a point when I didn’t recall a single day I didn’t imagine myself dying. Worse: killing myself. I had images in my head of jumping from the sixth-floor window with a noose around my neck. I thought of what it felt if I drove towards the sea over a 100-feet-high cliff. I imagined intricate ways to tie a noosed belt to the ceiling or the door. I wasn’t suicidal, really. I don’t think I ever took any of it seriously. I later understood it as a symptom of depression. I am just one of the millions and millions infected by this epidemic — Depression — one of the most pervasive and common illnesses in the world today.
But I will not kill myself, that’s clear to me. I will probably die in the next few decades from diabetes or heart disease. These are by far the most common causes of Death. Eating chocolate and using our hearts, as it turns out, are the seeds of our Death, just as much as they are at the center of our Lives. Seriously: people are scared of terrorism and being murdered on the streets, or tornadoes or lightning, or plane crashes, but that’s not how people die. According to the WHO, ischemic heart disease is the killer champion and was responsible for 16% of the world’s total deaths in 2019. Add it to strokes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and they become the trilogy of Death and are killing more and more people every year. Even more than cancer. At least before Covid-19 came along and sent all the numbers into the cauldron of chaos. But I will probably die from diabetes — if I don’t take care of myself, it just fits my profile. So, forget Depression, let’s take care of Diabetes. Stop eating this and that and sitting to read and write — start fasting and walking. Sweet is bad, bitter is good. Again — Death informing Life.
And what is Death? Most people have really incredible ideas about it, if you take a good look. Some believe in Eternal Life (how strange and ironic is that?), in Heaven and Hell, others think of it as a moment of renewal, whatever it takes to take the grim edge off the concept. Some believe in ghosts and in coming back. The simple truth is just one: we have no idea. The only perspective we truly have of Death is from a living point of view. We see it as an end. After Death, what we understand as Life just ends. And this makes it important, even more than just because it’s inevitable and omnipresent. It’s fundamental nature as an absolute end of something (whatever we may believe comes afterward, it’s still some kind of end), makes it crucial to us.
Freud uncovered what he called the Pulsion of Death. Like an instinct that pulls us in towards Death. An inner and mysterious fascination. The power of Tanatos. Other psychologists would dismiss it, but I always found it amazingly similar to a Buddhist concept: that idea that one of the two motivations for any action is escaping pain (the other is finding happiness). Death, as the end of everything, seems also to be the end of suffering, the end of hurt, the end of pain. And that allures us, of course. But there is maybe one single reason why I will never kill myself and that is this: I don’t know what is on the other side. This idea that Death will release us from pain and suffering sounds to me as fantastical as any of the others: there’s no way of knowing if this is so. I could be jumping from the frying pan to the fire, as far as I know.
But people don’t commit suicide because it makes sense to them. They do it because they are hopeless and empty and, most of all, they feel exhausted. They are too tired to keep it up.
One moment changed things for me. Many years ago, I was invited on a trip to Sarajevo with a few dozens of other artists and writers. It was 1998, the Bosnian Civil War had ended a couple of years before and we walked into a city living under a heavy grey fog of pain and sadness. Bullet holes were on every wall, church gardens and squares had turned into cemeteries, we still had to be careful with the mines. Mostly, we could see the weariness in the eyes of the people. They had been through things I can’t imagine to this day. One night, when I was trying to read before going to sleep in a room in an old lady’s house that seemed full of history, I felt the building shaking. My first thoughts were that there were tanks moving through the streets — but soon I realized it was an earthquake. It turned out to have been near Belgrade a few hundred miles to the South, a 5.5 in the Richter scale. The next day I asked this Bosnian girl if she’d felt it and she started to laugh. ‘My cupboard doors started moving on their own and I thought it was ghosts!’ And she laughed and laughed. I didn’t find it funny. Someone told me that girl wasn’t good in the head because she went through some nasty things, and I could only imagine. But I could tell her ghosts were real. Pain and Death seemed to be all around us.
Then a few nights later, after a frustrating argument over a coffee table with an Islamic fundamentalist who didn’t listen to music because Allah didn’t like it, I went for a walk in those grey heavy streets with a friend of mine, Alberto. He was an Italian philosopher and we had one of the most enlightening discussions of my life. He told me that arguing if God existed or not was not a logical discussion. The existence of God is an aesthetic consideration, he said: either the Universe and your Life is more beautiful with God in it or without it. Trying to logically argue for or against the existence and contours of divinity is like arguing about the beauty of the color yellow. It’s pointless. And he was right. I never argued about it again. Maybe the existence of ghosts, life after Death, and Heaven and Hell, aren’t that fantastical after all. They are just what we are.
But then, much later, something else occurred to me. The Hopelessness and the Emptiness are not ‘about Death’. We feel them in Life. And they’re also an illusion. It is undeniable that we are a part of something much larger than we are. A thousand years ago we didn’t have running water, bathrooms, we couldn’t pick up food from a shelf, we didn’t have dentists helping us with our rotten teeth, we could die from a broken leg, we didn’t have air conditioning to help us against the heat and the cold, we didn’t have phones to connect us instantly to the other side of the planet, and going somewhere took forever. We didn’t have TV or movies. It’s not that all of us have it, but it’s possible — it’s feasible. We went to the Moon. We went to Mars. We can fly. We can travel. We can read and write, what Stephen King called real telepathy — we can transmit ideas through space and time to someone else we don’t even know. We aren’t useless. None of us. We are part of something big that’s going on — either by divine intervention or the dynamics of chaos and complexity.
And that’s why I woke up this morning, got up, and finished another one of my novels. It was a novel about Death and Love and Family, as usual. And it cost me. It costs me every time to crawl into the depths of my being to bring the essence back to the surface. But the feeling is one of ascension. It’s a fleeting feeling, like breathing in and out after a long and scary dive. It’s primal. But it only lasts a day or two. It belongs to the Foam of the Days. I will remember it fondly but never experience something exactly like it again. Another novel will mean another familiar but different feeling. My writings, however, just like my breathing, will endure. Maybe only to me, maybe no one will read them, but they will endure. That’s my Choice, my Meaning, the Destiny I built for myself. It doesn’t defeat Death, it’s not a move of Rebellion, but a move of Maturity. It wins Life.
And that’s all I have to say for the moment. Until the next campfire, my friends.