The Shot

Recently, talking about Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis said this:

He was someone with exceptional love of life and since he has died he has bequeathed his love of life to me. I feel the obligation to value every moment because he is not there to value it… Your wonder of life increases towards the end because it is tinged with a leave-taking feeling that it’s not going to be there for very much longer.

Norman Geras, who’s maybe Amis’s age, picks up on this:

Recognition! You get to this point where you not only enjoy things (when you do) but also have a second-order response, along the lines ‘I’m enjoying the day (this book, movie, walk, get-together with family, friends etc), and that’s good because my time is now (more) limited, and I must make the most of it.’ Probably it comes for everyone at a different point in their lives, but I know exactly the day, just over nine years ago, when I started to have this background consciousness, so to say noticing what used to be just the regular events of life.

Norm goes on to ask whether we should develop that background consciousness at an earlier stage. Perhaps a constant knowledge that it’s all going to end would make us better at living. However, he writes, this same foreknowledge could as easy ruin such transient joys. ‘If there was already a second-order narrative in your head,’ Norm says, ‘your youth would be grey at the temples.’

I guess it depends on the person. I started thinking about mortality at around nineteen or twenty and it became quite a psychological kink for me. Youth is full of immediate opportunities and we think that something bad’s going to happen before the good thing. I even used to criticise myself for not paying enough attention to the moment, not feeling it enough – wondering if this was just me, or if we are all stranded in the past or dreaming of the future, barely skittering the surface of lived time.

When I was officially diagnosed with anxiety disorders I realised that my own background consciousness contained a fear of imminent death. I would have trouble planning something weeks or even days in advance because there was always this disclaimer – well, fuck, you could be dead by then. I actually factored this in. In some ways my generation are more conservative and aware of our own mortality than was Amis’s – I knew twenty year olds who were afraid because they were halfway to forty. There was also the assumption that we were all going to be married with children by around twenty five and so in a sense life would end. It’s a smug sacrifice I always rejected, although my own life – interesting and enjoyable though it’s been – doesn’t exactly advertise the road I’ve taken.

I am still very aware of being alive. I try to fill my days with good and productive things, I try to resist mindless routine and low expectations and I try to lose myself in the texture of life. Music, writing, books, booze, good company and long runs; you just have to take the thing you love – as Hank says in Californication – and make it your life. Not many of us will be able to claim as Hitchens could that we lived life to the full but I think most of us will have taken our best shot at it.

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