by JIM KNIPFEL
September 15, 2019
Where Is Thy Stink?
I donít recall where I heard this originally. Maybe it was Nietzsche. Maybe it was some Buddhist. It mightíve been the drunk on the next stool over at Spring Lounge, back when I used to spend my afternoons drinking in Spring Lounge. Well, whoever it was, they said in essence that when you no longer fear death, you no longer fear anything.
††††††††††† I can see the point they were trying to make, whoever it was, what with the fear of death lurking at the heart of all of our other myriad fears. Why be afraid of heights? Well, because you might fall and splatter and die. Why be afraid of the water? Because youíre not going to drown on dry land. Why be afraid of cats? Because they might suck your breath out while you sleep, and youíll die. Why be afraid of open spaces? Because out there with nothing to hold onto, you might get sucked up into the stratosphere and suffocate.
††††††††††† So sure, that little dictum seems to make a lot of sense, save for one problem. Less a problem than a counter example.
††††††††††† Iím plagued by as many ungrounded, stupid fears as anyone. Not nearly as many as used to plague me, maybe. I finally got over my fears of ketchup and electric hair trimmers. The whole ďgoing blindĒ business helped considerably, too. It may seem counterintuitive. But if you canít see things, they present far less cause for anxiety. If I canít see that battalion of heavily-armed cockroaches marching across the floor toward me, if I donít know theyíre there, thereís no reason to be afraid, right? But plenty of dumb fears do linger.
††††††††††† That said, I have never, ever been afraid of dying. If youíre dead, then you know longer have any reason to be hobbled by fear. Itís that ďnot being deadĒ part thatís the problem. If youíre not dead yet, then you can still suffer unimaginable pain, debilitating illnesses and injury, loss and failure and abandonment. And those imaginary baby-eating rats are still living inside your walls. All of them are only issues if youíre still alive.
††††††††††† I know people who are nearly paralyzed by the thought of dying, obsessed with it. They go through the day unable to shake the thought that one day they are going to die. To hear them tell it, this can really get in the way of enjoying life to its fullest, being painfully aware that the Reaper is always slinking about right behind you, poised to tap you on the shoulder.
††††††††††† As far as Iím able to glean, one of the big factors justifying this fear of death is not knowing whatís going to happen in the afterlife, whether youíll be going to heaven or hell. Oh, come now. Think about that one a second. We invented these notions of ďheavenĒ and ďhell,Ē and concocted The Ten Commandments, as a means both of keeping people in line and exacting revenge on our enemies. If youíre good and kind and helpful, the idea goes, youíll spend a blissful eternity having been reunited with your dog, Chester, who died when you were eight. Meanwhile that sadistic boss of yours at the Whole Foods will spend that same eternity choking on Satanís thorny dick. But in realistic terms, how well has this plan worked? In response to the promise and threat, have people really behaved any better over the past two thousand years? Clergymen, those blessed souls theoretically closer to God than anyone, are for the most part a bunch of vicious, cruel, mean-spirited child-molesting vermin, so what does that tell you? They obviously donít believe any of that heaven and hell claptrap, so why should you? Do away with that ďafterlifeĒ folderol, and the question becomes much easier.
††††††††††† Honestly, though, the simple, inescapable fact that Iím going to die has never bothered me. I donít say that with any sense of bravado, itís simply true, and has been as long as I can remember.
††††††††††† When I was in kindergarten, I remember telling my friend Ed that I would prefer to be dead. Being dead just seemed so much easier, even at that pitiful age, to being alive. I said it without any thought of an afterlife of any formógod, what a miserable thought. I didnít want any afterlife, I merely wanted to cease to exist. It seemed so much simpler and preferable, even at age five, than continuing to slog through the drudgeries of the day. At the time I wasnít thinking about suicide, I was simply looking forward to the lights going out for good and not having to worry about anything (like kindergarten, apparently) anymore.
††††††††††† Itís hard to explain, but it didnít arise out of depression or despair. I was a reasonably happy kid from a close-knit and loving family. It didnít even seem like that big a deal to me at the time, though Iíd hate to imagine what would happen to any five-year-old who said any such thing today, especially in a classroom setting. My goodness, the counselors and shrinks would start pouring out from under the teacherís desk like it was some kind of social hygiene clown car, and the poor little honest sap would be disappeared into an institution before anyone could sneeze, locked up until the psychoactives had a good firm grip on his nervous system, and he started talking and thinking like everyone else.
††††††††††† To me it was simply a comforting thought, that one day all this nonsense would come to an end and I could just sleep forever. Again it wasnít depression or a self-destructive urge, it was rationality.
††††††††††† Think about it. Most people cling desperately to the idea of living. They simply do not want to die. But those same people spend most of their time complaining. They complain about their health, the weather, traffic, politics, sports teams, the high cost of living, their jobs, other people, the state of the mass transit system, the younger generation. Any and every thing they can think of is cause for complaint. Well, hereís a little secret: the world is not going to become a nicer, gentler, more enlightened place, regardless of what your notion of ďenlightenedĒ may be. In fact everything is only going to get worse and worse and worse. Environmental collapse is not going to do an about-face in the next few years. The days of a free and open democracy Ė if such a thing ever existed in America, or any place else -- are long gone, and ainít coming back. Big tech firms will continue to buy and sell you like cattle, only more so. And people are not going to be getting any smarter or more pleasant. Try to imagine what the climateís going to be like twenty years from now, and the effect itís going to have on the food supply. And thatís just for starters. I think of those cancer patients who subject themselves to radiation and chemotherapy in a desperate hope it might extend their lives for a year or two, or maybe just a couple of months. Yeah, a couple of months or years of being sicker and more miserable than they wouldíve been with the cancer alone. Sure, youíll lose your hair, develop bleeding sores and puke all the time, but damn it youíll be alive. Worse still are all those recent reports about scientists extending the average human life span, as if this was a good or desirable thing. So we live to be a hundred and twenty, hundred and forty. Our bodies are still going to weaken and break down. Most of us will end up with dementia, confined to hospital beds and wheelchairs, and the world around us will continue to go to hell on every level. And with more of us living longer, thereby putting an even greater strain on basic and already limited resources, the deterioration of the planet and social conditions will only accelerate. But damn it, youíll be ALIVE, right? ALIVE! ALIVE! ALIVE! As the sideshow talkers always proclaimed, and thatís the important thing. I donít get it. So why cling to life if itís going to be terrible and all youíre gonna do is bitch about how awful it is? It makes no sense.
††††††††††† It was about a decade after my kindergarten confession to Ed that I started taking a more pro-active approach toward that longed for nothingness. Poisons, razors, staircases, city buses, scotch and pills. Turns out I wasnít very good at it, and after six or seven years of regular attempts to snuff it, I got pretty bored and gave up. It seemed the human body (at least mine) was a bit more resilient than the media had led me to believe. ďFragility of lifeĒ my ass.
††††††††††† These days, getting older and slower, my attitude toward The Great Equalizer has not changed, though Iím a bit more passive about it than I was in my teens. The idea doesnít consume me, but it does pop up quietly now and again. When I head out in the morning I do not feel in the least compelled to step in front of a speeding SUV on Fourth Avenue or springboard in front of the N train. I stand patiently at the corner to wait for the light to change and I step back from the subway platform when a train is roaring into the station. But should one of those SUVs or city sanitation trucks happen to mow me down as Iím crossing in the crosswalk with the light, well then so be it. Happens every day in the city. I donít let the notion bother me. And although I live in a neighborhood almost devoid of crime, who knows? Maybe one day Iíll get lucky and some kid on a passing bike will whip out a Glock as Iím having a smoke on the stoop. So what?
††††††††††† Some people, when diagnosed with some dread terminal illness or another say they ďwant to put their affairs in order.Ē I say fuck thatóIíll be dead, so let someone else deal with that boring shit.
††††††††††† I donít consider any of this grim or downbeat, and Iím certainly not romanticizing the idea like those goofy Goth kids or Nineteenth century poets. Again, itís just rational. If itís inevitable, if thereís no getting around it, whatís the point in fretting? Iíve pretty much done all Iím likely to do here. Itís not like Iím going to write another book or do anything else at this point thatís going to change the world. If I do write another book, itís just going to be another silly, meaningless novel, and who really needs that anyway?
††††††††††† It occurs to me that if more people shared my attitude toward deathóand in fact if millions of people just out and out dropped dead happilyóthe world would be a mildly better place. It would still keep going down the shitter as thatís just the way of things, but at least thereíd be fewer people bitching about their fear of death.
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