Epictetus is reported to have said, “What is

I still occasionally get emails from a professor of religous studies I had a year ago.  I was inspired to respond tonight on my deep philosophy of life and death.  Maybe deep is not the word that I want.  Let’s say the significance of thought is like a grave.  A deep thought is like, you know, a well dug 6-footer with a single person.  Wisdom is a mausoleum, insanity a mass grave, and ignorance is cremated ashes thrown to the wind in some place scenic.  My thoughts, in that case, are like a Korean grave: a mound about four feet high, occasionally in the company of other mounds, sometimes surrounded by a short wall, but as often unmarked and in the middle of a broccoli field.  Maybe I was so inspired to write because I actually had to rationalize the decision to wear my seat belt for the drive home this evening.

This is what immersion in a foreign culture does to you.  You go with the flow so often that what you took for granted in your home country becomes alien.  I have some mixed feelings about the fact that there is nothing I can do about the fact that my host father will drink and drive and I do have to go home with them.  My host sister was annoyed by the buckle poking her in the butt and every time she scrooched and pushed at it, I thought “sorry to be such an American, but you, kid, are going through the windshield.”

The first time I remember fearing death, I remember thinking about all of the movies I would never get to see, and how tragic that fact was.  Movies would be made after I died, great movies, and I would never get to enjoy them.  I was in elementary school.  Now I think about how I’ll never know the end of the story.  The end of the human story on the planet Earth, the end of the personal stories of everyone I know to the moment of my death.  And there are people whose stories I will never know.  And if experience is itself a story, I will not live any more stories.  So many interesting things that I might have enjoyed doing, or knowing, but I won’t get to.

There are also interesting things that I might have enjoyed knowing or doing yesterday but didn’t do, but that causes me much less angst because, for certain practical reasons, I operate on the (admittedly flawed) assumption, that there will be a tomorrow and another chance.

But actually, it occured to me one day that it’s not about tomorrow, or about yesterday.  I don’t operate as though there were a tomorrow, but as though there were many tomorrows.  As romantic as it sounds to live every day as if it were one’s last, few people do and I would argue that it is not very practical to do so.  One Sunday when I was confronting the possibility of not leaving the house all day I asked myself “If I am going to die tomorrow, do I care if I never leave the house today?”  No, I didn’t care.  Barring certain monumental days in one’s life, a single day is not that consequential.  If I knew I was going to die tomorrow I’d be annoyed about what I never became, about things that would have taken more than a day to accomplish.  Every day is precious in that all of those days add up to what we become and if we waste them, then the long term is also wasted, but those daily struggles are meaningful because we operate as if they will add up to something.

One wasted day doesn’t necessarily add or detract to what I become; it’s a null.  (Although I realize I should be cautious in saying so since it may depend on my definition of “waste” and how I waste the day: if I “waste” it by some people’s definition of waste, by sitting in a chair and listening to good music all day, or if I waste it by shooting heroin, i.e. behavior that is actually destructive and will affect my “productivity” on subsequent days.)

Maybe because of one wasted day, regardless of the how it is wasted, I will fail to achieve some X thing that I want to achieve in life, but maybe I will achieve it anyway.  Maybe I have enough time.  If I do, then is the day not wasted?

I’m sorry, I’ve lost track of how that was relevant.

When I come home to the States for Christmas from Korea, my travel will involve five different airplanes, in about 24 hours, and when I realized this, my first thought was “I am going to die.”  I think of every flight as a round of Russian roulette, and every time the plane touches down, I think: “survived again.”  So I don’t entirely look forward to so many chances to fall out of the sky in such a short period of time.  That’s definitely not relevant, but I’m friends with too many jet-setters who look at me funny when I say that, although I technically understand the underlying physics (rather, I understand *that* there is underlying physics) it makes no sense to me that jumbo jets can fly.

Happy Holidays!


  1. The truncated subject quote should read: “What is
    death to me? Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not.”

    I realized belatedly that I implied that all cultures that cremate are ignorant. Oops. I personally want to go the Zoroastrian way and be picked at by vultures.

    In a certain way I do like the transit part of traveling. It is by definition productive because you are getting somewhere, but you have a free pass to do nothing. Pico Iyer has a funny book in which he talks about what it’s like to live in an aiport.

    Thanks for the well-wishes, wish with me that the Christmas presents in my checked luggage don’t get lost somewhere between Beijing and Denver.

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