Last night I finished reading Stephen Mitchell’s version of Gilgamesh. It provoked bittersweet reflections about living with knowledge of death.
Gilgamesh recounts, among other things, how the hero in the title struggles to deal with mortality. In the story, each person’s death inevitably results in a drab, eventless after-existence, regardless of his or her deeds while alive. For Gilgamesh the fear of death seems especially sharp because, two-thirds a deity, he receives so much exaltation in life. Near the end of the tale, a wise old man tries to reverse Gilgamesh’s self-pity. He points out that, unlike many others, Gilgamesh has at least led a glorious life from the start.
More movingly, another character advises Gilgamesh:
Humans are born, they live, and then they die … But until the end comes, enjoy your life, spend it in happiness, not despair. Savor your food, make each of your days a delight, … wear bright clothes … let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
This passage reminded me of the Flaming Lips‘ beautiful song, “Do You Realize,” which has had signal importance in my recent life. Just before waking up to attend my sister’s funeral, I dreamt that they performed this song in my apartment, and it helped to pacify my heart. Indeed, I had told my sister as she confronted death that I preferred to face it with her by enjoying the time we have together instead of fearing the time that we won’t. Heck, I even wrote a song urging listeners to “live each day like it’s your first.”
These are all words to live by – immensely preferable to a life of existential fear. Unfortunately, I know this because I frequently teeter between the two perspectives.