A Death and Existential Reflections

Pritpal S Tamber

July 14, 2017

Some musings spurred by a friend's death and me being on an island staring at the sea

A friend just died. It was a friend’s father, to be accurate, but I’ve always found it odd to distinguish between friends and their parents. To me, they come as a package.

I’m reading Middlemarch right now. I’ve just read the part when Peter Featherstone dies. It was strange to read that and then get the SMS informing me that my friend had died.

Death was suddenly all around me.

It always is, of course. But we forget that. It’s especially easy to forget where I am right now, a resort tailored to families. Every night, there is a small ‘concert’ for the kids to sing and dance. It’s amusing and their awkward, gawky movements seem to radiate with life. I was chuckling at them from my balcony only minutes before receiving the news.

Death always makes me ask what I’m doing with my life. I’m 43. If I’m lucky, I’m half-way through my allotted time. I’ve started to feel closer to the end than the start, especially off the back of rupturing my left cruciate ligament. The rupture has made me ask if it still makes sense to tear about like I’m 24, playing football as though my life depends on it. I never thought I’d doubt playing but suddenly I’m wondering if there is more to pursue, if the sacrifices of playing the game at a level that matters to me are really worth the price.

This resort is in Mallorca. Last month I was in rural Washington State. On both trips I looked up at the hills and wanted to trek them, to pack a bag and slowly work my way up, to test my body in new ways, perhaps more age-appropriate ways. I love trekking. In fact, the only way I can endure beach holidays is if I have to trek the find the beach. I did that in Sifnos last year and was amazed by the beauty I found. It really was heaven on Earth.

This existential angst goes deeper than ‘football versus trekking’, though. A large part of me wants to put my life first; to get a well-paid job, enjoy my work but also have time and money to see more of the world. These last few years have felt like the right thing to do with the skills and experience I’ve acquired (Wellthcare, the Collaborative, BH&C), but they’ve been at a steep price – of personal sacrifice and exhaustion.

Is this really what I want to be doing when life is so short?

I don’t know.

I love the sea. Its infinite is humbling. It puts you in your place. Each day, wherever you are, it comes in, goes out, does what it does. It tells you that the world will continue to turn no matter what you do. So perhaps one should just enjoy one’s time, perhaps all that matters is the enjoyment.

My mentor (who’s making me read Middlemarch, partly because I asked for recommendations and partly, I think, because he’s horrified at how poor my education is) tells me that surveys of happiness show that people are least happy at my age right now. Perhaps that’s what this existential crisis is part of, some deep unhappiness that’s experienced by all of us that start to see the end closer than the beginning.

The trouble is I can’t ignore the absurdity of the world around me. Focussing just on health care, it amazes me that we are where we are, and that there isn’t a chorus of influential voices and actions changing our course. Most, if not all, of the well-paid jobs in my field either ignore that fact or just talk about it (that’s what most editorial jobs do, talk and talk and talk, but little ever changes, at least not fast enough). I’m too impatient, if not angry, for that. I want things to change and am realising that the only way to make that happen is to build the change (our new tool is the most recent example of that)

Trying to do something about the absurdity is, in my experience, incompatible with enjoying life, unless, of course, you enjoy the constant fight. I guess I do, but up to a point. And that point has been crossed too many times these last few years. I don’t always notice, which is why one needs holidays. And why it’s good to stop, reflect, and watch the sea when your friend dies.

He was a good man, a great father, engaging and funny in conversation.

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

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