Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fads Are Now, Wisdom Eternal

I've seen a lot of buzz recently about the Death Clock. People apparently keep these clocks on their desktops, reminding themselves how long they have to live.

I was struck by how arbitrary and inexact such clocks are. Even the terminally ill don't know their exact day of death. The leanest, healthiest, most cautious person might be hit by a truck tomorrow. People who are old and ill often live on for years beyond medical expectations.

A death clock functions as a reminder of mortality. When human beings receive reminders of just how short life really is, they re-examine their priorities and resolve to live more meaningful lives.

We all receive reminders of mortality all the time. People die unexpectedly, and we can feel Death's breath on our own necks. Flowers bloom, soap bubbles pop, seasons change, children grow. There's no shortage of reminders that life is transitory, that we have a long long time to be gone and a short time to be here.

How long would a death day clock continue to prod us into living here and now? If I had a death clock on my desktop, it would soon fade into the background. Every once in a while, I'd glance at it and receive a faint reflection of its original impact. As time wore on, its effectiveness would diminish.

I suspect, however, that it wouldn't have much impact in the first place. I'd be far too busy thinking about how inaccurate it was and how it might be tuned to be more accurate to pay attention to it as a reminder of my own mortality.

In the 70s, popular culture was full of reminders to Be Here Now. Most of them skated on the surface of consciousness, but some went deeper, exploring the meaning of time and what it means to be human.

As I thought about this, I remembered Janis Joplin's crooning in the live version of Ball & Chain:

I don't understand how come you're gone, man. I don't understand why half the world is still crying, man, when the other half of the world is still crying too, man, I can't get it together.

I mean, if you got a cat for one day, man I mean, if you, say, say, if you want a cat for 365 days, right you ain't got him for 365 days, you got him for one day, man. Well I tell you that one day better be your life, man. Because, you know, you can say, oh man, you can cry about the other 364, man, but you're gonna lose that one day, man, and that's all you've got.

You gotta call that love, man. That's what it is, man. If you got it today, you don't want it tomorrow, man, 'cause you don't need it, 'cause, as a matter of fact, as we discovered in the train, tomorrow never happens, man. It's all the same fucking day, man.

Okay, it doesn't make total sense and the woman was drunk and pretty screwed up besides. In her voice, however, I can hear the naked pain of grief and the courage to face it. Maybe she only has one day, but she's going to live it for all it's worth.

I don't need a death clock to tick down the seconds until my scientifically-predicted-but-almost-certainly-wrong time of demise. What I need is a life clock, to remind me of the precious gift of the present day. I need a clock that is set to the eternal number 1.

This reminds me of Ehrenrang, in Ursula Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness, where it is always the Year 1. The past continues to recede and the future continues to advance, but next year never happens. It's all the same fucking year, man.

Wherever I go, there I am.

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