“Whoa, something’s not right,” I said. My foot was on the brakes, and halfway down the pressure vanished and the pedal sank effortlessly to the floor. I slammed the pedal down again. The car kept rolling.
If reading that scared you, I have two things to say:
- Good. That’s the point.
- I’m sorry I scared you… The story doesn’t end badly… I’m okay, I swear…
With careful handling I learned that the brakes had not failed completely and that I could still stop the car, and I happened to be just a couple minutes away from my mechanic, so I drove straight there to learn that a hose had exploded and all of my brake fluid had leaked out. I had to leave my car overnight to be fixed and call my partner for a ride home.
I tried to be as reassuring as possible, letting her know that I was okay before I told her that the brakes had stopped working properly, but it didn’t matter. When you hear something like that, all you can think about is what could have happened. How absurdly fragile life is!
Honestly, even though I was very careful and very lucky, I could have died yesterday.
Honestly, I could die right now.
Why do we let ourselves forget that fact?
Being an existentialist, I tend to dwell on this sort of thing. I consume lots of fiction that focuses on the fragility of life – hospital stories, war stories, crime stories, murder and accidents and bad luck. Just an hour ago I finished The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (a modern Dracula tale) and I thought, “If a vampire burst in here right now, what would I do?” Well first I’d grab the garlic, obviously, but I’m a weakling and I wouldn’t stand much of a chance, so I’d probably die. In that last moment, what would my regrets be? What am I leaving unfinished?
There are a lot of things we put off because we’re waiting for the right time, and there are a lot of things that we want but never take steps to achieve. Frankly, it’s stupid.
It’s one thing to lay out a plan and start following it. For example, if a vampire was killing me, I wouldn’t regret not finishing the novel I’m writing with my partner, because we work on it every time we get the chance. We’re actively moving toward our goal. (We’re almost certainly going to finish our first draft within the next week.) I am proud of that fact, and if I die before we reach the end of the journey, I’ll at least know that I gave it my best shot.
But if there was something I really wanted to do and I was simply too cowardly or lazy to do it, then I would regret that.
Myself, I have few potential regrets. In recent years I have been cultivating an attitude of action. My motto: if you want something to happen, make it happen. Act now. No excuses. I learned this from cool people on the internet, from my partner, and from experience.
(Sometimes I still procrastinate and avoid things and don’t work very hard for something I want, but I’m starting to find that when I do that, it’s often because I don’t actually want the thing. Sometimes I like the idea more than the reality. It’s important to sort out the difference between things I want and things I only think I want.)
Whenever I get complacent and think, “oh, it’s okay, I can do it later, there’s no rush, plenty of time,” I read a book or watch a show where a character dies. Sometimes I need a good scare.
I am going to die. You are going to die. It might be in fifty years or it might be five seconds. Don’t push that knowledge away; don’t be willfully ignorant. Face your mortality and act. That thing you’ve been wanting? Make it happen.
“Later” is not guaranteed.