Being an early riser who go to bed too early, I feel somewhat inferior to night owls – they get to watch the late-night shows in time, they can enjoy multi-course late dinner and still have ample time to digest it, they are always the first to learn about breaking news from the other side of the globe, or at least they can be awake during earthquakes that seem doom to take place around midnight, and they seem more attuned to higher forms of creativity that tend to strike only in darker hours … In other words, they’re the ones who stay wakeful on top of most occurrences on Earth, while I have to sleep through the greater part of the party. But it’s all been prewired this way, there’s nothing I could do about it.
In the wee hours before dawn, I get up, brush my teeth, get myself a cup of tea, and listen to the house. A floorboard creaks somewhere. The refrigerator lets out a dubious sigh. The houseplants sway inconspicuously in some dim corner, in tune with the hiss and whoosh of air vents. And there is mimic buzzing in the ears, like the faint sound of a cricket or cicada from faraway meadows. The world is at its sleep stage of vivid dreaming, while I sit vigilant in the quiet, relishing the most coolheaded hours of my life. Hopping on to my lap, my imaginary cat curls its soft downy body into a bundle of warmth and endearment, like marshmallow in honeyed cocoa.
If I go to the window and look out, I’d see a dove-grey sky with scattered glimmers of fading stars. Trees disperse their boughs and branches upward in the gloom, like dervishes positioning for their prayers and swirls. The vague outlines of clapboard houses loom in silence, accommodating people’s fitful sleeps and colored fragments of dreams. Occasionally, a light can be seen from some window – that must be another early riser, sipping their first cup of morning brew.
Sometimes, I’d see a headlight wobbling up and down along the trail behind the backyard – it must be a runner holding on to his New Year’s Resolution. Is he training for a 5k? Or his first marathon? Or simply endeavoring to cultivate a new routine? It seems to be a common human trait, that we just have to always engage in some sort of exertion, mental or physical, toward a self-important goal, as long as we live on. As if we never realized that everything is fundamentally futile and hence the efforts all seem pathetic. Like a hamster running a staged wheel, or a beetle rolling a dungball, we can be just the same foolhardy and unsuspecting.
Running in the biting cold before dawn is not pleasant, but we do it. Attaining a sub-2-hour marathon is inhumane, but people are keen on it. The actual process of actualizing any idea is never pleasurable – the more glamorous an idea is, the more arduous the process is bound to be. At any point in life, we are either painstakingly striving for some goal, or consumed alive by guilt for not trying. We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret – as Jim Rohn summed it up. It takes every ounce of energy to endure either way.
All this endurance, where will it lead to when we die? There are various theories on life after death. The most platonic one for my liking is suggesting that the entire universe is a fruit of one’s imagination, that once you die the universe will no longer exist. But the more common crops of imagination mostly revolve on three possibilities – we may return to dust, we might go to heaven, or we could start another round of birth and death, in the endless cycles of samsara.
The notion of ‘dust to dust’ has the special appeal of simplicity. There is something down-to-earth about it, uncontrived and unadorned. All is straightforward and clean-cut; nothing is left to tangle further or linger on. It’s kind of wasteful and sad though, that all the efforts one had ever made, small or big, insignificant or profound, would amount to dirt in the end, merely in vain.
On the other hand, eternal life in heaven seems a bit overmuch extravagant. Initially it sounds auspicious, but once you start envisioning a soul drifting gleefully in the sky, like one of those smiley-face fireworks discharged on the 4th of July, only in a more perpetual manner than the mere transient of fire and smoke, you begin to wonder if it’d be what we really want. With no occasional blues as intervals, would eternal happiness become like a prolonged act of tickling, at every risk of getting weary? If there’s no longer need for self-improvement, what would one want eternal life for? By essence, an aimless drift in heaven can seem almost an equivalence to the nullity in dust, only a difference of polish and luster.
The notion of reincarnation conjures up mixed feelings. It’s comforting to know that all efforts are not going to get wasted – everything will accumulate and contribute to the wholesomeness of next life. Say, if you play on a musical instrument this lifetime, and keep fine-tuning your craft, it might increase a slim likelihood for you to become a Mozart or Beethoven in next life. Meanwhile it’s daunting to anticipate, however, that many more rounds of struggle are still lined up ahead, like an ultramarathon that never ends. Just imagine, that right after Anthony Bourdain freed himself from the burden of being alive, he only found himself running smack into yet another round of living – possibly with less skillful means allotted to him this time and no more artistic outlets whatsoever. What an unthinkable cruelty. It makes you heartbroken just considering the possibility.
Death can be a breath away, for anyone asleep or awake, young or old, ready or unprepared. Yet the most important answer remains elusive to the unenlightened mind. I resign to merely watch the first crack of dawn, where the air seems teeming with billions of dust specks – a cloudy day must be the forecast. A few birds are fluttering around the feeder hung below a linden tree, their chirping pure and easy to the ear – they sing with no words, but I suspect they’re more in the know.