I’m healthy, as far as I know. And I fully intend to live as long a life as I possibly can, with my wife at my side, savoring years of love and laughter, watching our daughter grow and embrace her own life and take on the world. But today, when the president arrives at Ground Zero to honor the 9/11 dead, I’m reminded that very few of us truly know how much time we have, before our days are quickly cut short by accident or evil act, or shadowed by long illness.
We go through life with the unspoken operational assumption that it will go on — for this is, after all, why we make plans, write down appointments in calendars, book flights and shows in advance, research middle schools and high schools and colleges, dream of what we’d like to be when we grow up. We stake claims on the future, believing we’ll be there to see it. But we don’t really know. All the more reason, then, to live now, to love now, awake and full of compassion and wonder.
And when death comes for me, I hope that I can meet it with as much courage, grace, and wisdom as Derek Miller did:
We fear death. We invent ways — beliefs, stories, rituals — to pretend it’s not the end for each of us. Huge, worldwide institutions arise from those inventions. They provide meaning, comfort, and a sense of wonder to billions of people. But not to me.
My meaning, comfort, and wonder come from another place, from trying to understand people, creatures, life, the planet, the galaxy, the universe, and their amazing diversity from my miniscule perspective as a man living in the 20th and 21st centuries here on earth. From trying to be a good person, a good husband and father.
What will outlive me is not my soul, because I don’t think I have one. But my children will outlast me. Their children, if they have them, will too. As will, perhaps, some of my words and ideas, like the ones written here. Anything that persists of me — besides the molecules that used to make up my body — will be in the memories of others, or in their genes (another type of memory). That might not be much, and it won’t be up to me to decide what that includes.
I don’t begrudge my friends and relatives who do believe in gods and souls and spirits. And what I’ve written here may hurt them, or spur them to pity me and fear for my nonexistent soul. I’m sorry if that’s so. I have no way of knowing with absolute certainty if one of the many philosophies or religions that advocate an afterlife is right. If they’re wrong, as I am all but certain they are, but if those beliefs help people to live happily, and to die contentedly when the time comes, that’s good, because they’ll never know. If I’m wrong, I come by my error honestly.
The beauty of a globular cluster or a diatom, the jagged height of a mountain or the depth of geological time — to me, these are natural miracles, not supernatural ones.
So is being able to feel love and to share it. Is love biochemical? So what if it is? It’s not “just” biochecmical. The atoms and molecules and infinitely complex interactions of that biochemistry are a natural miracle too, one I cherish. […]
I hope to make the most of it.
It turns out that no one can imagine what’s really coming in our lives. We can plan, and do what we enjoy, but we can’t expect our plans to work out. Some of them might, while most probably won’t. Inventions and ideas will appear, and events will occur, that we could never foresee. That’s neither bad nor good, but it is real.
I think and hope that’s what my daughters can take from my disease and death. And that my wonderful, amazing wife […] can see too. Not that they could die any day, but that they should pursue what they enjoy, and what stimulates their minds, as much as possible — so they can be ready for opportunities, as well as not disappointed when things go sideways, as they inevitably do. […]
The world, indeed the whole universe, is a beautiful, astonishing, wondrous place. There is always more to find out. I don’t look back and regret anything, and I hope my family can find a way to do the same.
What is true is that I loved them.
I never knew Derek Miller, but he seemed a clear-eyed skeptic — and more importantly, a loving husband and father. I’m thankful that he contributed to all the love and decency in the world, and thankful for his reminder that, as groan-worthy as it is, the cliche about “seizing the day” does have a central truth: Life is here, all around us, now. And we should live it to the fullest while we can.