Words by Emily Fuller
Art By Marija Tiurina – @marijatiurina
It was a Tuesday afternoon when I thought about my death. The broody storm and vicious rain that was pounding on my front porch almost seemed like a pathetic fallacy. It was several weeks into the most recent lockdown, where days were filled with takeaway coffees, living room yoga and Ottolenghi recipe attempts. I was sprawled out on the lounge watching Girls for the fourth time over – my productivity in lockdown seemed to come to a screaming halt – when the thought popped into my head. One day I’m going to die, it said to me. This was a strange and morbid thought to have without context, thought I was not alarmed – I have read enough Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson over the years to know that this is the only concrete certainty that prevails in trying to determine our future. I thanked my brain for the random intrusion and tried to get on with my binge-watching.
Forty minutes later I became aware that my thoughts had grown roots so deeply in this idea that my mind had not moved on from it. My brain was a dizzying carousel that circled around the thought. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. Willing myself not to fall into panic, I recounted the numerous measures I put in place to pull myself out of my sporadic anxiety spurs. I went for my usual walk by the beach, as the steady wash of the waves would usually erase out everything in the periphery. Instead, all I could think of was how one could drown in that big expanse of blue. I came home and nervously fluttered around doing the washing, vacuuming the rugs and watering plants that had probably received a little too much love in lockdown. But if anything, the thoughts were compounding, getting louder in my head to the point where every other movement or going-on in my physical reality fell away – like the sensation that you’ve travelled into another space when you submerge your head in the bath to wet your hair. Then, inevitably came exactly what I was avoiding, panic.
I descended into what felt like absolute madness. I spent days and weeks involuntarily obsessed with the ideas of death and meaning. I would wake up every morning already feeling the sharp edges of a panic attack splintering my sternum. I spent most days in bed intermittently crying and staring at walls, totally trapped in my own head with just the thought of oblivion as my cosy lockdown company. I posed the same questions over and over to myself with very little resolve: What happens when we die? Is it silly to believe in something larger than us if I don’t prescribe to religion and do passionately believe in the fundamentalism of science? If there is nothing else, does that defeat my beliefs in spirit and essence and love and art? If so, does that mean we are purely products of our environment, robotically responding to patterns in biology and culture? Does that completely dismantle my romantic ideals of soul mates, and does that mean that my relationship with Sam or my closest friendships aren’t as sacred as I thought they were? Believe me, I was as exhausted by this as you are probably just reading this.
Panicking about your death is a tricky one. On one hand you know that it feels scarier than it should because your brain has tilted off its axis and spun into an oblivion that is not tangible or real to your immediate reality. However, death is also an undeniable truth that cannot be pushed or pulled or twisted or rearranged to be considered any differently. It will happen and it will come to you and the people you love when it wants to. It really is ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And so I convinced myself of the very truth of it, thinking that this was just a new stage in my life where it was normal to think about this all day, every day.
I felt the ethereal vibrations of a scythe being sharpened almost everywhere I went, in every book I read and in every film I watched. Living in the very peak of a pandemic, especially in the confines of lockdown, I felt surrounded by death and suffering in all its different capacities. So much so that my brain struggled to conceptualise and rationalise it. It was unbearable to witness and stew on the suffering that was occurring on such a collective and universal scale, that my brain’s way of accepting and processing it was to become obsessed with needing to find definitive answers to all my death and meaning-related interrogations. And in doing so I became calcified in pessimism and nihilism. My anxious brain told me that if there was so much discomfort and anguish in the world being inflicted on good people for no certain reason, then how could I plant faith in something bigger than us. That nothing must truly matter if this is the nature of things.
Luckily for me this was an intense state of delusion and anxiety, and that these thoughts of death weren’t truly how I felt about existence and the world within my interior self. Not only did lockdown trigger feelings of burnout, fear and trauma for many people, but it fostered the perfect climate for the timely arrival of my scheduled existential crisis. Living through your early twenties comes with a kind of sheltered privilege for some of us in being shielded from our own mortality. Existing in these early stages of life and awareness, a lot of us are lucky enough to not be constantly subjected to the horror of losing loved ones, to be wholly acquainted with the unwelcome guests of deep and visceral grief. The only people I have lost thus far are my great-grandparents, to which I felt immensely grateful that I had many years of knowing and loving them, as well as remembering them for the rich and full lives they lived. Because of my age and the Western world I live in, I have the luxury of thinking about the trajectory of my life in a manner that feels infinite and expansive. There is an evident complacency and comfort in assuming you will live a long life filled with experience, opportunity and relationships – the thought of your death isn’t even a blip on the horizon because it seems like there is always enough time. Thus, when that epiphany of death and the people you love not being with you arrives at the destination of your brain, it can feel like a colossal shock.
Like everyone else on this planet, I don’t have any definitive answers when it comes to meaning, existence and death. What I do have however, is a desire to plant faith in something bigger that helps me to build a framework in understanding our multitudes, our complexities and our deep sense of love, and how we can harness these wondrous things to build upon a kinder, gentler and more accountable world. Faith and science can offer intersectionality rather than forcing them to exist as conflicting dichotomies, contrary to what our modern thought tells us. As Yaa Gyasi writes of her protagonist in her fantastic novel examining such intersection – Transcendent Kingdom:
I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak.
Whilst there are many people who do not feel the need to explore an idea of faith or spirituality in order to find meaning and purpose in their life – and rightly so – there are just as many people out there that require a belief in something, anything. Now that I have experienced a small reprieve from the vice of death anxiety in these last few months, I am increasingly finding acceptance and contentment for both worldviews to coexist harmoniously in my interior world.