What We Leave Behind

I bought some life insurance last week. I’ve been putting it off for ages, ostensibly because I wanted to research my options, but the long list of other things I have procrastinated on speaks to the lie in that scenario. In reality, it just wasn’t much of a priority, but finally, I got there.

In my 20s, I used to sell life insurance, and Past Me would tell Current Me that I am under-insured, but perfection is the enemy of done, and some is always better than none. I bought breathing room until I can get it all figured out.

One reason – the worst reason, actually – for delaying the purchase was my reluctance to think much about death. I mean, that isn’t completely true: I feel like I have been thinking about nothing but death and people dying for the last two years.

Of course, there is the massive casualty toll from COVID 19: Right now we stand at just under a million dead in the US alone. And none of those people exist in isolation: They are all someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s aunt, sister, mother. They were our co-workers, our server at our favorite restaurant, the mechanic who worked on our car, the doctor who looked after our children. The ripples from those million deaths are strong and wide-ranging.

But even putting aside deaths from Covid-19, there is just so much death right now, literal and metaphorical. I know people right now reeling from unexpected deaths of loved ones, friends, partners, and parents. I know people dealing with the death of beloved pets, and those who are planning the end of life for their pets. And then there is the death of dreams, relationships, and livelihoods brought on by this pandemic.

So much dying, all around me. Thinking about it has been overwhelming.

I’m not afraid of dying – that’s not it. I mean, I like living, and intend to stick around as long as I can, but I don’t fear death itself, because I don’t think there is anything to fear. I have preached at dozens of funerals in my career, and I can tell you what the various traditions, including mine, believe about what happens after we die, but the reality is, nobody knows. I mean, really knows. In my experience, people who are insistent that they do know either want to sell you something or sell themselves on something they already bought.

The rational part of my brain says that our species existed 300,000 years before I was born, and I have no firsthand knowledge of any of it, so it would be irrational to suppose that I will have first-hand knowledge of it going forward after my death. To be more concise: The rational choice is that my consciousness will be the same place after I die that it was before I was born: Non-existent. That when I die, I just turn off, like a light switch.

But I believe in humanity and community, and for most of those 300,000 years, there has been some belief in most cultures that we persist in some way. Perhaps it is delusional to think that I may be reunited with my loved ones in some way after I am gone, and it is not the most rational belief system by far, but it is a beautiful one, nonetheless.

I tend to be ruthlessly pragmatic when it comes to things like spirituality. Since I do not know what will happen after my death, I don’t spend much time thinking about it, preferring instead to focus on what I can know. I know what happens when I feed hungry people, when I ease someone’s burden, or when I look for who is missing and work to get them found. I know what happens when I do the work in front of me and so I leave speculation about rewards in the afterlife to other people.

But I also know that I will live in the memories of those who love me, and as long as there are stories I am in, as long as my influence is still felt, as long as any change I worked to make happen can exist and be built upon, in some sense, I am never really gone. We all leave legacies behind us, and it is up to us to decide if they are to be worthy ones.

No, any hesitancy I have around death doesn’t involve me at all, but the people I will leave here, who will miss me when I am gone, who will have to find a way to move on, who will have to clean up whatever mess I leave behind, and who will be left to pick up the pieces – because no matter how well I plan, there will be pieces. Every death breaks things, and there is always a mess to be dealt with. And now my death – which is inevitable, if hopefully a long way away – will be slightly less messy than it would have been before.



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