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An informal survey of dreams fulfilled

Six years after the first Before I Die wall appeared in New Orleans, there are now over two thousands walls in seventy-six countries and thirty-eight languages. During this time, we’ve had the honor to read through aspirations of all kinds, from writing a book to repairing a relationship to giving back to a community. Or running a race, running for office, or simply finding some kind of peace. And we began to wonder: how often are these dreams fulfilled? If you’ve completed something you once wrote on a Before I Die wall, we would love to hear about it. Fill out the form below, and we’ll begin sharing these stories in the weeks to come.

The Stellar Sphere

It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? As I sought out the belt of Orion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations and the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I cannot help but search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought. Here is a sublime image of the afterlife from Posidonius, written two thousand years ago: “The virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round.” This is a comforting image.

Hearts will be broken and cities may crumble, but the sky will always go about its business. This can also be a reassuring thought.

There is also consolation to be found in the words of Plotinus, who believed the soul is immortal and joins the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.” Plotinus was one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind: “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” writes Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times produce otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of God, said Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of opinion, snark, and outrage, these spiritualized encounters are often all-too-brief glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its strictest sense: ecstasy as a Greek loan-word that describes standing outside of one’s body. To be elsewhere. To escape the self. And once freed, where else would you go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, their desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky and rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens is one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered. In our rare moments of communion with the stars, he says, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I do my best to tune in to these echoes from the philosophers who listened to the sky while contemplating their souls. I’d like to recover this sense of wonder in the digital age.

Dying Together

Notes on Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

Sometimes I stand over the recycling bin with a fistful of junk mail—catalogues, credit card offers, shrieking discount specials—and I wonder if this is a dark joke. Will depositing my paper, plastic, or glass into this particular bin save us from ourselves? What is the end game of vicious capitalism, energy wars, relentless distraction, and a tattered social fabric in the face of an overheating planet? Sometimes it seems as if we are determined to march off a cliff. “Global warming is not the latest version of a hoary fable of annihilation,” writes Roy Scranton in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. “It is not hysteria. It is a fact. And we have likely already passed the point where we could have done anything about it.”

It is a brutal little book. Drawing upon Socrates’s belief that “the philosopher makes dying his profession” and Montaigne’s proposition that “to philosophize is to learn to die,” Scranton suggests we are living in a uniquely philosophical moment, for now we must learn to die “not as individuals, but as a civilization.” After outlining the painful climate data that measures just how far we’ve wandered beyond the point of return, he analyzes the intractable wars, calcified wealth, and defanged channels of protest that make salvation nearly impossible. The calvary is not coming. The guardians have left the gate. Yet we might find a tiny light at the end of the tunnel if we turn to cultural memory and philosophy not only as a means of consolation, but a way to reconnect with ourselves, one another, and our understanding of what it means to be human.

As we struggle, awash in social vibrations of fear and aggression, to face the catastrophic self-destruction of global civilization…we must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection. We must keep up our communion with the dead, for they are us, as we are the dead of future generations.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a timely introduction to—or reminder of—ideas plumbed more thoroughly in places such as Ricard Sennett’s Fall of Public Man, Adam Curtis’s Century of the Self, and the writing of Bertrand Russell: the loss of collective faith in public institutions has led to an increased focus on the self, the instant, and the quick payoff—and we must begin the hard work of reversing this trend, which starts with examining our relationship with death, even extinction. “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death,” wrote Spinoza in 1664. “And his wisdom is a meditation not on death, but on life.” Contemplating beauty, cultivating compassion, and learning to listen to the music of the spheres may not reverse the rising seas, but it can offer dignity and grace—and increase our chances of not only survival but sanity in the strange new world to come.

Tossing my junk mail into the recycling bin is a peculiar gesture of faith in the future, even if my faith is sometimes shaky. But I do it. Stepping outside, I’m reminded of a sublime sentence from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “The moon is a stone and the sky is full of deadly hardware, but oh God, how beautiful anyway.”