I held a child tight as he cried for fear of dying, curled up and clutching his poodle like a pillow, face in fur, wetting it with tears and haphazard saliva. “It’s all gone and we won’t remember,” he moaned, “and I don’t know yet if I’ll be born again. I just don’t know yet what will happen. It’s all going so fast.”
“Jacob, you’re only 10. This is a lot to worry about at your age. It’s simply unreasonable.”
“I just don’t want to die…Is that so unreasonable?”
As a 22-year-old with a new job, in a new city, navigating the mess of new adulthood, I haven’t thought about death in a long time. Perhaps a few years. By no means am I trying to sound dismissive or trivialize the reality of someone dying, of permanently non-existing while loved ones remain lost in existence. But death, in the swing of life, feels so far away. As young adults, it happens to people we half-know or people we’ve once known, and they get shoved into a category of “human race” much closer to the other side than ours. They become shadows, distant creatures in waiting, on line for something that the Fully Living refuse to see. And we – in our ripe twenties – are the Fully Living in full force.
I realized on my walk home from Jacob’s that as a kid, it’s entirely reasonable to fear the things that are out of your control – like death. I surely thought of it too, the reality of my life ending would sometimes keep me up at night. I’d imagine how I would die, if people would care, what it would feel like. But weirdly, this piercing fear dies once you get older and join the Fully Living.
It gets quickly replaced, at least for me, with the fear of life.
What do I mean by this?
As a kid, growing up felt like the best, most exciting, coolest thing to happen. I saw middle school as a Mecca for new friends and fun, new experiences (nobody told me it was awkwardness on steroids). Instead of my teenage years as some fat, oily, angsty monster lumbering toward me in slow motion, they represented a life I was dying to reach. I remember looking at older kids and thinking they were giants. An 8th grader looked comparable to a 20-something in my mind, all the older tiers of human life mushing together to create a big exciting blob of what’s-to-come.
The mystery and fun of growing up would smack me in the face at every turn. I watched coming of age TV shows like Lizzie McGuire or The OC, where kids twice my age or more were dealing with the obstacles and entertaining dramas of their age group: friendship quarrels, image issues, drugs, sex, heartbreak. Looking at a 15-year-old Lizzie or an even older Marissa, I internalized each episode as a sign of imminent life. I wanted boys to crush on me, I wanted an arch middle school nemesis, I wanted to wear makeup and dress up for parties. I wanted all the staple elements of a stereotypical teenage life.
Even beyond media, we are always inching toward adulthood in extremely obvious ways: benchmark birthdays, a first kiss, one’s first blowout with a parent or friend, the first big choice – whether it be a class, a boyfriend, the end of a friendship. Older siblings, too, provide a crystal clear window into our own futures: “When I’m in college, I’ll go to parties like that,” “When I’m my brother’s age I’ll be allowed to stay out late,” “When I’m older, Dad will teach me to drive.” You know exactly what’s in store and have full room to accessorize imminent reality with colorful trappings of the imagination: I’ll reach 7th grade and have the hottest boyfriend ever, I’ll get my first cell phone and it’ll come decked out in rhinestones, I’ll go to my first concert and Britney Spears will invite me on stage. I’ll go to so-and-so college and do everything in the New Student brochure. When you’re young, life demarcates the ground where you land, and every destination seems super exciting in its own way.
As I walked home from Jacob’s apartment, I remembered a strange sensation I always had, one that directly piggybacked the eager excitement I’d feel when thinking about my next birthday or life’s next big step: guttural mortality. A feeling that before I’d reach age X or Y, I’d die. I’d get killed. I’d suffer some horrendous freak accident and life would end before it could continue. Because envisioning myself at an older state felt so impossible, so hard to grasp. I just couldn’t place it. This feeling continued into my third week of college, freshman year, when a mini van almost hit me on a walk back to my dorm and I thought, “I’m going to get killed before this whole college thing really happens. There’s just no way I live through this. There is simply no way.”
To my surprise, I did live through college, and that perverse, creepy mortality tingling has not yet gone away. In fact, it’s grown even more forceful and paralyzing. Because now, I’ve grown so afraid of the things within my control, that pushing my life forward feels like an impossible burden. Being Fully Living is the scariest fucking thing to realize, because now I am an agent. And there are no more demarcated lines to land on.
From the womb to the grave, we are not just going through the motions of a human life from start to finish. We don’t just tally our age and pass through each milestone moment as the “life” we were from day 1: “me” at my Bat Mitzvah, “me” at my middle school graduation, “me” at my wedding. When I was 7, thinking of the “me” at 16, I never thought of that person being different from my childhood self. She was static and abstract, an objectified older-looking version of Ali. But as I know now, this “Me” is dynamic and changing, aging and learning. This “Me” is growing. As soon as you speak and understand in the world, you begin the process of becoming your own agent. You are put in charge of making choices, hedging bets, cutting some loose and letting some in. And these responsibilities only increase as your “Me” gets older and older. You get all the fun, exciting add-ons of grown-up life, as my child self always thought, but you also get the very heavy burden of directing it.
I am Fully Living and in fear of life because I know I’m going to die some day, and at age 99 on my death bed, I’ll have to leave with every choice, every love, every hate, and every missed opportunity. I am in fear of life because there are no more TV shows to tell me what’s next, or older siblings to mimic and mirror. I’m not in a pool of elementary school kids flooding into an identical next stage, or in a high school class studying for the same exam as every 17-year-old in the nation. I don’t have a class I have to go to tomorrow at 9am in order to get an A. In fact, I have no idea how to “grade” or assess my own success. I am fully in charge of my “me,” my identity, for what feels like the very first time. Unlike Jacob, this burden of living is what keeps me up at night.