Imagine a bridge across a great chasm. If you fall from the bridge, you’ll tumble into the darkness and towards the depths of the earth. Like Gandalf falling off the Bridge of Khazad-Dum. Or, if you prefer, imagine that you’ll fall into a crocodile-infested river. Think Indiana Jones crossing a canyon. However you imagine it, a fall from the bridge across the chasm equals death.
Now, imagine you can choose between two bridges across the same chasm. The first is like the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s constructed from a mass of metal and concrete and can withstand great weight and pressure. It’s also very wide, so to fall from it, you would have to climb the railings and chuck yourself off it.
The second bridge isn’t at all like the first. It’s like a skinny two-by-four slung across a great ditch. It’s narrow. It wobbles as you transfer your weight from one foot to another. You can feel it bending beneath your mass.
To cross a great chasm, which bridge would you take? The one which is wide, secure and made from metal and concrete? Or the one which is narrow, bends, offers no support and whose foundations aren’t even remotely secure? Unless you’re insane, you’d take the first, right?
The sense we have of our own mortality is like crossing the first bridge. An earthquake could strike, and yes the bridge might shake and we might lose our balance, but we’d be okay. It’s going to take something momentous to rob us of our life, to make us tumble over the edge into the abyss. But the (i)reality of our mortality is more akin to the second bridge. Our very existence is balanced on a narrow beam, and the slightest shock at the wrong time could cause us to fall.
I could stop writing to go and make a cup of tea. As I start making my way down the stairs I could trip over my feet. After half a second of shouting and tumbling I could hit my head on the banister. Smack. Game over.
I could be stopped at a junction, waiting to pull out. I glance to the left and to the right, then begin to move. But I only looked. I didn’t see what was coming. As I lift the clutch and shoot out of the junction I get nailed by a van. A brief moment of panic and pain, and then blackness.
It really is as simple as that. But our existence doesn’t (i)seem that fragile. We feel almost invincible, untouchable by the ravages of time and events. Like our death will be some great event that we can foresee and prepare for. But it isn’t. When death arrives, it is always a surprise.
The faith we have in the continuity of our existence is unfounded. The feeling of security we feel when we look into the future and consider the decades of life left to us is an illusion. In reality, it takes next to nothing to snuff out the candle of life. We just need to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In reality, our very being on and in this world is both fragile and of indeterminable length.