We all in the end die [in] medias res – in the middle of a story. Of many stories.
Mona Simpson, in a eulogy for her brother, Steve Jobs. The phrase, in medias res, is Latin for “into the middle of things” and in it’s original context, it pertains to the artistic and literary convention in which the telling of a story begins at the mid-point or at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning.
I find its application in the quote to be highly appropriate, as it reminds us that the passage of time is but a grand narrative, comprised of numerous other stories that overlap and connect; they do so in ways our limited perceptions scarcely ever noticed.
Our individual life is itself a story. It has all the trappings of any play, novel, or sitcom. We have twists, recurring characters, rising action, and climaxes. We have heroes, villains, allies, adventures, and pitfalls. There is sometimes action, often times comedy, and no doubt – for most of the world – tragedy.
And of course, like all things, from the universe down, there is an end. Every story must conclude, sometimes too soon, other times much later than expected. Ideally, our living narrative can remain immortalized by others, perhaps tweaked and edited and subjected to varying accounts and interpretations. Being remembered is the closest thing we have to eternal life; in light of this, being forgotten can arguably be a fate worse than death.
As I noted before, no narrative transpires in isolation. Everything and everyone is connected: each event, action, relationship, or interaction imprints itself on another person’s experiences, sometimes in a miniscule way, other times more profoundly. Think of the thousands or even millions of stories we inavertedly play a role in some way or another – the many people of varying importance to our lives who we interact with throughout the course of our existence.
Frequently, especially before bed, I look back on all the friends, acquaintances, and lovers I ever had, and still do. My life has been touched by a lot of people, and I’d like to think I’ve reciprocated that in turn. The sheer variety of personalities, wisdoms, perspectives, experiences, advice, and memories that comprise my time in this world is astonishing and comforting. In my relatively short life, I have come to know and experience so much more than I could’ve imagined – far more than most of my fellow humans ever had a chance to know.
I’ve forged social ties that have enriched my life in ways I may not yet even realize. A good story needs an interesting cast of characters and an exciting plot. While my life is hardly extraordinary, it’s been filled with more than enough wonderful occurrences, people, and sensory experiences to make it something great to look back on. If this fortunate trend continues, and I am lucky enough to live into old age, I know I will finish my story with utmost contentment.
This entire metaphor isn’t entirely romantic or reassuring, however. Among the greatest fears I have besides death itself, is dying without having lived my life to its fullest. As close friends and long-term readers know, I am well aware of my own mortality, and that leads to a fair share of anxiety in my life. There is so much to do and see and learn. There are many personalities out there to meet. The more my life is enriched by these things, the more of it I crave, and the greater I fear never getting to experience what I want in this grand universe of ours before I expire. As with everything, there is a cost and benefit, and so it goes with living a fulfilling life (though I’d happily trade fretfulness for the life I’ve lived thus far any day).
I don’t want to perish with my life incomplete. I don’t want to miss out on the great things that life has to offer. In all of human history, I am one of a select number with the fortunate circumstances to enjoy life to its fullest. I don’t want that to be squandered. It’s a rare gift that deserves to be utilized to its maximum potential.
Then again, does anyone ever die with a “proper” ending? How many people reach a point where they say, “I’ve done, seen, and learned all I want or all there is. I’m ready to go.” Certainly, some people do feel this way, though often it is not their choice – they’ve been constrained by factors beyond their control. But I think that most of us feel driven by this human need to be and to do.
I think of the artists with their unfinished paintings, the writers with their fragmentary works, or the musician with their incomplete compositions. Just about every intellectual, innovator, thinker, and creative mind left behind some uncompleted task or objective. They kept on doing what they devoted their lives for, literally until the very day they died. Like most people, they died in medias res – in the middle of things.
As always, I can find a silver lining in this difficult endeavor. It is true that none of us will ever finish everything we start, or do everything we’ll ever want, before we leave for good. But I’d like to think that that make’s life all the more precious. We have a small window of opportunity to make the most of our single life. We must cherish every moment of our narrative, which could end at any moment, and make sure that when that time comes – whenever it may be – we’ve made it as satisfying as possible.
When we die, our part of the grand narrative of this world may be finished, but it lives on – so to speak – in the lives of others’ in which we played a role. Going back to the quote, we die in the middle of many stories. We’re part of so many other people’s lives, or have the potential to be if we’re not at that point yet. To live on through our impact on other people is the best thing we can hope for. Let the show go on, in a sense.
Perhaps that is a gratifying perk to trying to make the world a better place – or at the very least, positively affecting the lives of a few of its denizens.