Standing in a crowd of sweaty, drug-fueled hippies, I became aware of my own immortality. My revelation came not from an illegal substance or psychoactive chemical, but rather from a serendipitous reunion with my childhood best friend. On that fateful day in July, I ran into Jake amidst a crowd of tens of thousands—and he taught me to live forever.
For as long as I can remember, I have been my own doppelgänger. I resemble myself physically and, in some ways, behaviorally. However, there has always been a fundamental dichotomy between who I am and who I’d like to let myself become. Now, I’m not referring to some clichéd double life or split personality; it’s much simpler than that. Part of me is content with the relatively normal life that I’ve chosen to live, but another wants something else. For a long time, I tried to resolve this dispute by denying it altogether, but as I grew up, Jake made its existence painfully clear. He became that something else.
I met Jake at a summer camp in Connecticut when we were ten years old. As the only two rollerbladers in a group of skateboarders, we got to know each other as well as any ten year-old could hope to know another. On the picnic table outside the camp skate park, he showed me music that inspired me: flavors of punk rock, reggae, and indie that influenced my taste for many years. When we were eleven, he taught me to play guitar so I could replicate that music with him. When we were twelve, he told me that girls wouldn’t kiss me unless I knew how to hold their hand the right way. And when we were fourteen, he gave me my first hit from a bong. However, when we were sixteen, we stopped attending camp together. I became a counselor, and he didn’t get the job.
We kept in touch through Facebook and occasional texting, but the forty-five minutes on I-95 that separated our hometowns proved too much. Eventually, we realized that we were growing up and away from that picnic table outside the skate park—and up and away from each other.
Two years had passed with minimal communication when I learned, through a Facebook status, that he would be moving to California. Only months before, he had enrolled at the University of Rhode Island; but while his decision made me curious, I was not surprised. He had always been indisputably intelligent, but never one for academics. Then, this past summer, fate orchestrated an opportunity for me to ask him about the move. On a day off from my job as a camp counselor, I attended a music festival, The Gathering of the Vibes. By some stroke of good luck—or maybe something greater—he was there on the same day.
I could barely even tell it was Jake. He had grown a thick beard, his hair reached his shoulders, and he had intricate tattoos on both arms. Nonetheless, we recognized each other for one reason or another, and embraced. After several minutes of bewilderment at the fact that we were together under such coincidental circumstances, we shared some of the important parts of our recent lives. Eventually, I asked him about California.
“So, when do you leave?”
“I head out on the 7th,” he replied. That was in four days.
“Damn. Why are you actually going? And once you’re there, what are you planning on, like, doing?”
He laughed before answering me. It wasn’t a “you’re-such-an-idiot” laugh, but rather an “I’m-so-sure-I’m-making-the-right-decision-to-do-this-I-can’t-even-contain-it” laugh.
“To follow the two things I love: music and drugs,” he explained with confidence. And to clarify, I didn’t invent that quote to bolster my point with fabricated clichés. Those were his words exactly.
He went on to tell me that, for many years, he lived with a crippling fear of his inevitable death. When he thought about what would happen when he died—really, truly thought about it—he would come to the conclusion that his life was essentially meaningless. He imagined himself at some point in the future, consciously allowing his eyes to close and understanding that it would be the last thing he ever did. His awareness of the fact that he would someday think his last thought terrified him beyond comprehension.
“But,” he continued, “I think about it differently now.”
According to Jake, most people mistakenly believe that the physical boundaries of their bodies somehow limit who they are. However, he clarified for me, we are more than that. The experiences of our lives define us, so that as long as someone experiences these universal thoughts, feelings, and moments, death shouldn’t seem so bad. By placing more emphasis on the parts of ourselves that can be mutually experienced by others, we become vicariously immortal.
“By moving to California, I can do more of what I love. And the more I do what I love, the more of myself that will live forever.”
I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but after an hour of further elaboration, he had convinced me. He was right.
Yes, I will die, and it will be the absolute and eternal end of whatever it is that I physically am, have been, or ever will be. However, that does not mean that my death will be the absolute or eternal death of everything. Therefore, in some sense, I will be preserved by the various pieces and parts of the world that I leave behind. I am not merely a body in space—I am also the sum of all the emotions, memories, and human interactions that this body has experienced.
I find great solace in the fact that things I value, believe in, and love will continue to exist when I do not. Children will still feel the same euphoria that I did when they hear beautiful music for the first time. Thirteen year-old boys will still feel the same enchantment when they first kiss a girl who makes them happy. People will continue to sing, to get drunk, to fall in love, and to make love. They will continue to climb mountains and to have best friends and to ski so fast that time slows down. And in doing so, they will keep the most valuable parts of myself alive.
I have gone through my life, giving away various parts of myself to the things that I love. Hence, parts of me have been eternally preserved in what I’ve experienced, who I’ve met, and how I’ve felt. These things are not unique to my own life; they are universal. For as long as they exist in others, I will exist in them.
Social psychology refers to this as indirect or symbolic immortality, the foundation of terror management theory, which presents it as a futile coping mechanism for people who are faced with the dismal fact of their own end. But I reject the claim of futility.
I believe that my content acceptance of death—with the knowledge that certain things will exceed the temporal boundaries of my own life—is valid and justified.
Maybe it was sheer chance that I ran into my childhood best friend mere days before he moved three thousand miles away, but I doubt it. Sure, I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. I’m just damn sure that this did.
A week after we ran into each other at the festival, Jake posted a picture of himself sitting on a beach near Santa Rosa. The caption read: “Doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do with my life.”
As I read it, I smiled. I smiled for Jake and for our friendship and for our shared childhood and my own childhood and his life and my life and for that serendipitous reunion at the Gathering of the Vibes.
Because of Jake, I no longer worry about the dispute between my personality doppelgängers. In some regards, I am many people—and I’m not quite sure who I like the most—but I know that other people will also, in the a similar way, become me. My favorite parts of each version of myself will continue to exist in others after my own death. With this knowledge, Jake reminded me that I am a piece of something much larger than the seventy-six inches and 195-pounds by which I typically define who I am. I am a part of everything that I have ever loved.
So, yes, I will die—but that’s something I can live with.