On death and dying

At sixth form college in Walthamstow my A-level philosophy teacher, Mr Ellis, came in one day looking depressed. He told us he had spent most of the night before writing a list of all the books he wanted to read and had then calculated that even if he read every waking moment from now on until he died (given the average life expectancy) he wouldn’t be able read them all, not even half of them. I was seventeen time and thought this was a ridiculous waste of time.  He was probably the age then that I am now.

This project first came about as a way of documenting illness, in particular the physical and (outwardly apparent!) neurophysical changes I was undergoing as a result of Graves’ disease. The concept has broadened a great deal since then but is arguably still a response to being faced with ones own mortality.

Twice in my life I have believed I was going to die. The first was an accident I had whilst hill climbing at the age of eleven. I fell head first about twenty feet towards some large rocks and landed in such a way that my family who were watching thought I had broken my neck. The second was just over a year ago when I was rushed to hospital with a sudden hemorrhage. These two experiences couldn’t have been more different. During the hemorrhage I felt panic at the possibility that this was it and certain I did not want to die.  When I was eleven, for the few seconds I was aware of what was happening, I felt a calm acceptance of the possibility.  Maybe I just didn’t have time to think about what I was about to lose, but the aftermath of these two events was also very different.
The accident aged eleven made me less afraid of physical pain and death. I became fearless in the face of being bullied at school (and subsequently the bullying stopped) and became a particularly reckless and wild teenager. The hemorrhage left me far more cautious of putting myself in situations of potential danger and for many months I cherished the most simple aspects of being alive.

The two events were very different in nature, but I think what defined those experiences more than anything was my age. At the age of eleven I simply didn’t have an awareness of what there was to lose.

I recently had a particularly poignant discussion in the local pub with a woman in her late forties who was here on holiday and who I had never met before. She talked about coming to a point in her life when she became aware of what the passage of time really meant. There was both a sadness and a joy in the way she expressed this. By the end of the short time we spoke I felt I knew her very well because of this openness.

She suggested that this awareness comes at different times for different people, but that age undoubtably plays a part.

I was diagnosed with Graves’ disease a few weeks after my thirty fifth birthday. I had the hemorrhage a few weeks before turning thirty six.

This film comes out of a perverse desire to capture and fully experience every moment. A desire only sharpened by the knowledge that it is a completely impossible and futile exercise, like chasing snow flakes, trying to read every book, or spending your entire holiday taking snaps to remember it by. For every moment I capture I miss a million more.  Five minutes a day filming means at least twice that amount of time logging, digitizing and reviewing the footage and even more when it comes to the edit. While sitting here writing I am very aware I could be out on the very beach in the film tasting the salty air, rather than trying to express just a fraction of the sadness and joy of the woman in the pub.

Am I experiencing life more fully as a result of making this film or just missing out on all the things I could be doing instead? Was Mr Ellis’ night of calculating life’s limitations a night wasted or gained?  Looking back now, it makes me wonder whether as a teacher Mr Ellis did this calculation for the sole purpose of sharing it with us, his teenage philosophy students, in the morning. I imagine him being mischievously delighted by the fact it has taken me a full twenty years to work this out.


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