As John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would put it, “Samuel may have thought and played and philosophized about death, but he did not really believe in it. His world did not have death as a member. He, and all around him, was immortal. When real death came it was an outrage, a denial of the immortality he deeply felt, and the one crack in his wall caused the whole structure to crash. I think he had always thought he could argue himself out of death. It was a personal opponent and one he could lick.”
While on my daily two-hour walk yesterday, I came across a shallow sandbar jutting out from the coastline. To get a better view of the sun setting over the water and the paddling of ducks who were floating rather insouciantly near the beach—shockingly, “paddling” is the accepted collective name of ducks when they’re on the water—I wandered onto the sandbar and stood there for a bit. As I listened to Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale” in my headphones (which, commendably, are not AirPods), I contemplated the merits of possessive apostrophes and the woes of human existence. Little did I know that as I was extending the frontiers of philosophical thought, the tides were rising quickly. So when I turned back to land twenty-five minutes later, the patch of sand connecting me to the coast was completely submerged. Essentially, I was stuck on a flat rock ten metres away from the shore. It was my own scene out of Ice Age: Continental Drift.
I was unwilling to get my beloved duck socks soaked with briny water, so I took off my shoes and socks, rolled my jeans up above my knees, and waded through the fifty centimetre-high, horrifically cold waves. As it turns out, stepping on barnacles hurts almost as much as stepping on Lego. On the bright side, it did give me a chance to use the word “gadzooks,” which I believe to be an expressive yet tasteful expletive—although, apparently, the sixty-year-old couple who were amusedly watching my struggle from a distance disagreed.
Recently and very regrettably, I lost a childhood friend of mine to suicide. He was only fifteen, and though we hadn’t talked in a while, he was one of the most thoughtful and compassionate humans that I’ve had the joy of knowing. In the aftermath, I have discovered that grief is much like the rising tides that stranded me on a rock yesterday: unpredictable, and with the potential to swallow up the island on which I fastened my belief systems and sense of security. I am adrift in an ocean of uncertainty. Unfortunately, getting back to shore in this case isn’t nearly as simple as rolling up my jeans and wading through a few metres of water.
What is most unsettling to me is the realisation that human life is hopelessly delicate, subject to the whims of chance. Like East of Eden’s Samuel, death was not until recently a member of my little world. And as much as we claim to notice and accept the unfairness and randomness that dictates our lives, I think we all believe on some level that the world is just and that people get what they deserve. When we consider issues of suicide and mental health, in particular, we have the misconception that their victims are identifiable, as though they’re a separate species from the average, well-adjusted individual. Otherwise, how is it possible for ordinary young people like ourselves to fall through the cracks without notice? How do we feel safe in a world where we never truly know what is happening around us until it’s too late?
Beyond that, I think there is something profoundly unfair about the fact that in the last few weeks my parents have proudly watched me perfect my pancake recipes and wake up at five in the morning for online debate tournaments, while all his parents have left is an empty bedroom and memories of a kid who loved Captain Underpants and Rubik’s cubes. There was a universe of life experiences that he won’t ever get back. This is an injustice that I can’t accept, and perhaps one that we shouldn’t accept.
In some way or another, we are all more fragile than we believe ourselves to be. I’ll be the first to admit that our entropic state of affairs under COVID-19 can be overwhelming—especially if, like me, you are suffering from a severe lack of Cinnamon Toast Crunch in your household. In earnest, if you’re having trouble staying afloat, I think that having emotionally honest conversations is the first step to safety; this is an opportunity for all of us to be kinder to others and to ourselves. After all, we only get so much time on Earth.