The Dog Days are Over
My childhood dog died yesterday.
That might have been the first real thing I’ve ever written. Not a subconscious echo of someone else or an idea I once read somewhere. A perspective that I alone felt, conceived, and brought into this world. There’s something beautiful about that. The suffering I experience is personal, its nature the culmination of memories shared over many years.
I think it’s only human to try to derive meaning from something, even if that something isn’t human at all. In many ways, my childhood was very similar to that of my dog’s life. A stretch of formative years marked by a trade of freedom for nourishment, growth, and love. It’s a good deal no doubt — one that bonds a child to their dog like nothing else. Though, with my dog’s passing, I can’t help but feel a morbid sense of irony. The universe has placed my dog’s death at the foot of my college graduation; the death of my youth as my adult life begins.
I’ve recently been acutely aware of how time has affected the world around me. It’s easy to slip into a negative train of thought once you realize that its effects will only become more visible. My parents’ hair turns a shade of gray as the generation before passes. Even my twin brother, a mirror of my own mortality, will grow old with me until, ultimately, either I attend his funeral, or he attends mine. A horrible thought, yet an unavoidable outcome of the universe. In a way, it feels good to be sad. Thinking of other sad things to continue crying until you forget what triggered it in the first place. It’s a power that you alone have, something you have dominion over in an otherwise chaotic world.
The arrow of time has been flying forward since the beginning. As my dog’s life passes behind me and I race towards graduation, I’ve begun to increasingly ponder the nature of this arrow. How was it made? What propels it forward? Where is it going? Big questions for a naive, young adult to answer, yet fueled by a pool of unhinged curiosity and optimism. I believe everyone is a philosopher; their skill measured by their comfort in expressing themselves and accepting flaws in their own ideas and thoughts. As I process the rapidly changing world around me, I’ve attempted to chisel away at these questions. A stoical coping mechanism? Maybe. Hopefully, a productive one that resonates beyond merely feeling like the empty words of an angsty college student.
Scientists postulate that time was created as a product of the Big Bang some fifteen billion years ago, as if someone simply pressed Play on a slideshow of 3-dimensional space. But our story doesn’t really begin here, for without the presence of a mind, time is meaningless. You can only appreciate the past and future through a story; the generation of intangible emotions and thoughts from nothing. A child isn’t born with the fear of nonexistence, for they’ve not been conscious for thousands of years before their birth in the same way that they will return to that state after their death. It’s only through the sharing of stories that we gain perspective, and simultaneously feelings, surrounding time; past, present, and future. It’s of no surprise that the first recorded use of mankind’s enhanced cognition and inquisitiveness was to conceive of a narrative about it.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the most important story ever told, encompassing thousands of years of pre-history into a hero’s tale depicting mankind’s most defining insecurity. Perhaps more impressively, this story was written around 2000 BC, making it, by far, the oldest window we have into the minds of our ancestors. The legend tells of Gilgamesh the god-king of Uruk, one of mankind’s first established settlements in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. An epic journey begins, drifting the reader through the mind of Gilgamesh as he reconciles with and defeats the personified forces of nature; a symbolic representation of the conquest that followed our footsteps from the wilds into our first societies. Though nearly perfect in form, Gilgamesh experiences the death of a close friend and quickly is overcome by thoughts of his own mortality. He travels in search for the secret to beat back time, but no matter his struggle or the power of his will, he ultimately fails. But in this failure he comes to one of the most profound realizations, one that truly echoes through history. To be immortal is not to live forever, but rather to create something that does.
So why does this myth matter and how does this help answer my questions? I’ve always found it important to look into the past in order to understand the future. The arrow of time was crafted by the universe, but it was us who sharpened it and gave it its piercing ability. A consequence of our talent for storytelling, we ground down the iron until its very existence materialized our fear for the part of nature that remained unconquerable; the creation of a pointed tip. Even the very limits of our conceptions of what mankind could be, in a perfect-form, succumbed to its divine force. Death is the great, inescapable equalizer, taking the lives of both the most vile and most innocent. But our ancestors do shed some light towards a secret protection. Our emotions and thoughts we conceive stand outside the effects time; and through them we can leave an immortal impact on the world. As Plato would put it, the world of ideas transcends the world of physical forms.
Some would argue that our thoughts and emotions are the only real things at all.
As I said before, there’s some sense of beauty in the sadness and suffering we feel from the the effects of time. It’s deeply personal, reminding us of our mortal existence. The nature of which constantly evokes the reality of the finite number of opportunities we have to both feel and share with others. A common theme permeating writings from the Greek Epics to children books.
Achilles, ever mindful of his looming death, fought in the Trojan War to achieve immortality through the crucible of heroic battle. A success no doubt, but perhaps more interestingly another perspective was shared in the cinematic retelling, Troy. Achilles believed that the immortal gods envied man, for without mortality there is no beauty. Something has to be at stake for you to feel anything, an idea also charmingly expressed in, of all places, Winnie the Pooh.
Everyday of your life you have been putting something at stake. Investing time and emotion into things that inevitably fall away, exposing yourself to suffering. In the sadness I feel for the loss of my dog, I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have that relationship to begin with. A sense of attachment. Emotions that will persist for eternity.
But to simply feel is only part of the equation, and doesn’t satisfy my curiosity in why experiencing the effects of time feels so human. To create an impact on society and those around us is the key to immortality, but to do so at the expense of your own happiness seems paradoxically inhuman. Why did we evolve this why? What do we gain from acknowledging the existential dread of the arrow constantly zooming forward? What could possibly be good about suffering?
The feeling of anguish, the deep suffering that torments even the strongest of us, is perhaps the worst feeling the body can conjure. But, in another cruel sense of irony, it seems that those who experience it also create the most impactful, immortal elements of our world. Many of them plagued by traumatic life experiences and constant internal turmoil.
Leonardo Da Vinci faced the horrific stigma of being a homosexual in a society that deemed it a heinous crime. The man could perceive the minute details of a painting’s color and conceive of inventions beyond his peers’ understanding, yet even in his esteemed clarity he remained in constant battle with his true identity and how society perceived him. The “Lost Generation” of thinkers, notably Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, similarly felt an inescapable anguish in life after witnessing the gratuitous destruction of World War 1, perhaps best illustrated in the poem “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Elliott. They created some of the most inspiring and thought provoking works of the 20th century, but Hemingway ultimately succumbed to his suffering and committed suicide, while Fitzgerald lived his short, addiction-fueled, life believing he was a failure. This pattern exists among professions characterized by their ability to create, for it often takes darkness to see the new light. The Sisyphean nature of suffering inciting creativity stands in testament to its importance in reaching the pinnacle of human potential.
We certainly aren’t all artists, nor should we strive to be. But it is interesting to observe that those who suffer the most are often able to provide the clearest picture of the world. One that can be both comprehended and felt by others. Suffering catalyzes change, and perhaps most importantly, the enhanced ability to mold the immortal ideas stuck within you into a stronger locus of control and sense of self.
The arrow of time glides forward, given lethality by our own minds and powered by our constant struggle to create the eternal. But where does it lead? You can’t control it outright, but perhaps you can guide the arrow to a destination of your choosing. This is perhaps the most concerning question given my impending graduation and the beginning of my adult life.
There is something ominous about an open road. No street signs, no cars, no pedestrians. You crave more information, repelling to the depths of your schema for an answer. Something to help give you a nudge in the right direction, but there’s nothing but the slopes of the terrain to guide you. Freedom beckons, but that isn’t a direction. Hell, what if you end up back where you started? We’re told the journey is the most important part, yet we’re measured by the distance we cover. In the pursuit of success, we often lock our heads down, ever mindful to not drift off path.
The search for meaning in life is a historic quest that has plagued humanity, but, of course, there’s been many articles and books already written on the topic. I think people, especially the youth of today, understand the truisms of “finding yourself” and the colloquial “YOLO”. Although great words, I think these ideologies fail to resonate with many that seek particularly ambitious and competitive life paths. In today’s world, we grow up wanting to be the heroes of our society, the “firemen”, “astronauts”, or the “star basketball player” who makes the game winning shot. But to do so takes immense sacrifice and certainly a level of suffering. Most toss aside these “childish” visions and look elsewhere to fill the void. I think the true difficulty in one’s search for meaning is the contrast between preparing to live versus truly living. That looming fear that you might feel unsatisfied once you make it to the top, realizing you’ve never really lived at all along the way.
After college, I imagine the days get longer and the years get shorter. Looking back, it’s as if time has already been speeding up. I’ve always wondered why, but in writing this I think I have a theory. In our youth, we are constantly experiencing new things, developing new ideas, and fostering new relationships. As we age, we begin to form hardened opinions, a firm identity, and fall into repetitive patterns. To remember every instance of a repeated behavior would be a waste of our mental capacity. It’s no wonder that time seems to fly by when we look back on periods of our life marked by iterations of the same actions and thoughts; a boring part of our story that our consciousness ignores.
By this point, you’re probably wondering how this all ties together. This piece is not about the death of my dog, my college graduation, suffering, or even time. This is about the importance of crafting your own life narrative, a collection of thoughts and experiences that have the ability to not only protect you from the arrow, but also permeate into other’s minds. The answer has been with humanity since 2000 BC, its very form the key. Through the personal suffering and sadness I feel from the death of my dog, the end of my youth, and the relationships that will soon fade, I can find solace in that I’ve been given a heightened clarity of what the world truly is. To see life as one big story, of which you and those you associate with are the characters, is the most powerful tool in mankind’s arsenal. Our minds are evolutionarily primed for this type of understanding and readily allow us to view suffering as another element of the human experience. One which can be harnessed on your own journey to immortality if you choose to.
It’s your life story; your consciousness but a live reading of the script. You don’t have to vanquish the forces of evil or fight a heroic battle. The best stories are the ones that resonate with the human condition, an internal conflict of the human spirit with itself. To suffer is to live. And to live is to put something at stake everyday; to be the main character in your own human story. Make it one worth reading.
Now, the dog days are over. The warm, summer months of my youth have eclipsed as I approach the harsh realities of a new climate full of unforeseen obstacles and tribulations. I’ve had my time around the hearth, empowered by my investment of time and energy into things I’ve had to unwillingly accept will disappear. It’s safe and warm here, but I can hear the wind howling outside. My call to action. I’ve been gifted the astronomically unlikely occurrence of an amazing family, a fostering community, and friends that will persist through life. And through my nascent writing and crafting a narrative of my own, I’ve come to respect time as the divine hand that turns to the next page.
I can just barely peek over the gate of my future, its opening only two weeks away. I’m saddened by what I leave behind in my past, yet remain steadfast in my optimism towards that which remains to be achieved and experienced. Perhaps my story is not that of a hero, but it is something I can call my own. The immortality of my thoughts etched into the most primordial part of myself, and now, shared with another. Small ripples converging to form the collective human narrative, traversing through time and not obeying its laws. A reflection of my life on the universe that even Gilgamesh might envy.