less than a million breaths away

“I’m talking about the individual US citizen’s fear, the same basic fear that you and I have that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it…Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away, and so are we, so am I…

And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have even heard of me will die, and so on, and the gravestones and monuments we spend money to have put in to make sure we’re remembered, these’ll last what – a hundred years? two hundred? – and they’ll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I’m cremated the trees that are nourished buy my windblown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, not only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here…That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine.”

That’s from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and it hit me rather hard today whilst I was eating lunch alone upstairs at work. First it was the bit about the gravestones, which we think of as the final reminder of our footprints on our place. Then that bit about the slow fire drove it in. Maybe it was the events of last night – really thinking about the other side of organ donation – I don’t know. But when I read this today everything around ceased to matter, to even exist. And all I can think about now is how precious little time we get here, and how even by that measure I get even less precious little time to spend with Ashley…and that comes at the expense of some other family who ended up with even less precious little time with their child than they could ever have brought themselves to even try to imagine.

And I am sad for them. And yet grateful. And while those two emotions mix readily in a person’s heart, it takes the mind significantly more time to catch up.


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