Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kevin Kelly, "Dead In Six Months"

So what if you knew – what if you really knew the date and time of your own death. Well, Kevin Kelly spent most of his twenties wandering around Asia. He was a freelance photographer. And he found himself photographing a lot of religious ceremonies. He found himself drawn to religious ceremonies. He was confused about what he believed.

I would get twisted and caught up, and these things were sort of in the background, consuming me. And actually I found that I could think about little else, for many many months. That behind all that I was doing there was always this unresolved question: Was God real? If he was real, then how could we ignore him. And we were trying to not ignore him, what would we do? And if he was real, then what about these other things that people said about God?

Then all that changed. When he was 27, he came into Jerusalem. It was the weekend of both Easter and Passover. And the city was flooded with tourists.

So I entered Jerusalem on Easter with the simple expectation that I was going to photograph yet another religious ceremony, another religious festival. And then for various reasons I got locked out of my hostel room. They had a curfew and I didn't make it back in time. I was in quite a fix because I was a stranger in this very strange town. I didn't have enough money to stay elsewhere, nor did I even have knowledge of where to go, so I wandered the old town of Jerusalem. At night. Which had been shuttered up, and was like a time machine. As if I had been transported back to the fifteenth century. Because all the souvenir venders were gone. And what was left were the labyrinthine paths of cobbled passageways.

I wandered around for a number of hours, and it was getting colder. Eventually I found myself at the one place that was still open. Which was some of the churches. I finally settled into the Church of the Holy Sceptre. Which is viewed as the church built over the mound where Jesus Christ was crucified.

I was getting very tired and there weren't many people around and so eventually I laid myself out on about the only flat area that was left, which was this marble slab underneath some pendants that had incense on them. And this was presumably the slab that commemorated the exact position of the crosses.

So I slept there. I slept on the crucifixion spot that night because it was the only place... No place in the inn.

I slept there until early morning, when the activity seemed to increase and people started coming in. I went out and followed the crowd where it was going. They were going out to the tombs area, in Jerusalem. And I went out, and there were some chairs set up, folding chairs set up in front of this tomb area. And as the sun was coming up on that Easter morning, I was staring at empty tombs. And, for a reason I cannot comprehend, as I sat on that chair contemplating this view of the early morning sun coming into the empty tombs, all that I had been wrestling with for the past many many years and thinking about religion sort of became resolved in my mind, and at that very moment I, I believed. That Jesus Christ had indeed risen from those tombs.


In an instant the tension of trying to figure things out was resolved because now suddenly everything was figured out. It was as if you'd been working on a problem for a long time and suddenly the answer was there and it was very clear that that was the answer. And although there were many things that were still not clear to you, you were very certain that you were on the right path.

Having that realization that Jesus Christ had actually risen from those tombs did not settle a thousand and one other things about what one was supposed to do about that. What I was supposed to do with that. Did that mean I was supposed to be a monk? Did that mean I was supposed to be an evangelist? Did that mean I had immediately to renounce all that I had and get into sack cloth and ashes and march out into the desert? All that was left unopened, and that is in fact what occupied my mind as I went back to my hostel to lay down and think about it. Because I had no clue, what it really meant to me ultimately.

And that's what I was pondering when I sort of was laying there napping and— I wouldn't say it's a voice but there was an idea that came into my mind that just would not go away. And that was that I should live as if I would die in six months. That I should really truly live. And that I could not tell for certain whether I would really die, but that either way I should live as if I was going to die.

And so, that was the assignment. I'm pretty logical and after thinking the thought that I should live as if I was going to die in six months, the first thought that comes to my head was, you know, 'Well that's pretty silly. I have no evidence whatsoever. I could live like I'm going to die in six months and not die at all." It would just be kind of an interesting exercise.

But at the same time it was equally probable that I might die in six months. It happened all the time. And there was no guarantee that I wouldn't die.

And so fairly quickly I decided that I was to live as if I really believed that I was going to die in six months. Which is what I set out to do.


The next couple days I had a kind of joyous experience of saying 'Okay, what do I do? Answers to that surprised me as much as the assignment. Because after thinking that through and contemplating it the conclusion that I came to was that what I wanted to do was to go home and be ordinary. To go back to my parents, to help them take out the trash, trim the hedges, move furniture around. And to be with them.

I was really shocked by that. Because I thought that, given six months to live, I would climb Mount Everest or I would go scuba diving into the depths of the ocean or get in a speedboat and see how fast I could go. But instead I wanted to go back home and be with my family for that time.

I of course did not tell anybody my crazy idea. This is in fact the first time I'm really talking about it publicly. Because it was a very scary and sort of alarming idea. I never told anybody why I was coming home.


I got back to where my parents live in New Jersey and things were unbelievably ordinary. And yet I found myself relishing the ordinariness, and finding it in some ways as exotic as anything I had traveled to see. So I helped around the house, dug up shrubs, I worked on a deck, I moved furniture, washed dishes. And I was intending to kind of spend my last remaining six months at home getting to know my parents better. And myself, hopefully.

But about three months into that, I guess my travel urges got the better of me, and... What I was most concerned about was, I wanted to see my brothers and sisters who-– I had four brothers and sisters and they were scattered all across the country. And so I felt very strongly that I wanted to see them. Before I died. And I got the idea that the way to see them was to ride my bicycle across the country and visit them on bicycle.

The path that I had to visit all my brothers and sisters was not a direct route. Going from San Francisco to New York I actually had to go up to Idaho and back down to Texas, and then back up through Indiana, so it was a 5,000 mile trip.

The day which, coincidentally, was exactly six months from when I had this assignment was October 31st. Hallowe'en. And so the plan would be that I would ride back home so that I would come back – to die – on the day after Hallowe'en.


I think there are a lot of people who have trouble staying in the present. There are some people who like to slip into the past, as a means perhaps to fantasize or escape. And they find that the past place that they retreat to...

I often retreat to the future. I was not a person who planned, or had a career staged out or who had a particular woman he wanted to marry someday, or some vision of a house. The future I found so hard to give up was a much more insidious type, it was that of, I'd like to buy this record, because in the future I want to hear this song again and again. Or, I will read this book, and there's some cool ideas in it, because someday I may write an article about this, and it's good to know that.

There was a sense in which my entire life was shifted to the future, and the thought of doing something now, for the enjoyment or the pleasures or the principle or the function of just right now, without any sense at all that it would ever be used again, that it could ever be brought forward, was extremely difficult and disconcerting, and I fought it day by day.

One of the ways I dealt with this was that I was actually able, by the last weeks, to not think about my life beyond Hallowe'en. There was a way in which, each time a thought came up about something that was beyond this horizon, I just said 'Nope, can't think about it, doesn't work. You have to dwell in the present.'

At the same time I was doing that - and I was able to do that - I also decided that it was an entirely unnatural and inhumane way to live. And that having a future is part of what being human is about. That when you take away the future for humans, you take away a lot of their humanness. That it's not actually a very good thing to live entirely in the present. That one needs to have a past, and one needs to have a future, to be fully human.


So he bicycled across the country. And as he did, he found himself increasingly obsessed death, with dying. He was making drawings and writing haikus along the way. And as he went across the country, they became more and more dark, more and more preoccupied with death.

It was a journey that began at the tomb of Jesus and, as I set off to my own presumed death, I did in fact think about Jesus Christ. We have the history in the gospels of Jesus' torment in his soul as he approached what he know of his annointed time to die, so it was again that very harsh information of knowing when you're going to die, and Jesus' soul was in great turmoil and pain because of knowing that. And I think I did experience some of that, not because I had the same weight, it was just my own life, but Jesus prayed that his burden be lifted, and there were days when I did pray that. That if I didn't have to die, I really would rather not.


By late fall I was pedalling through the Appalachians and it was getting colder and colder, and my hands were freezing on the bicycle, and there was ice on my tent in the morning when I got up. As each day went by, I was coming closer and closer to terrain that I was familiar with and that felt like home. And I was riding into New Jersey, and I was elated. I was elated that I had accomplished this long journey, and I was elated that I was home to see my parents.

I came into their house on Hallowe'en day. And I was so filled with ideas and things and emotions that I didn't really say very much. I couldn't say very much. I think we had a wonderful dinner, they were of course glad to see me, cause they hadn't seen me in a long time. They knew when I was coming back, and we had a wonderful dinner, we had baskets of candy which I gave out to the kids.

We had a discussion that night which was about nothing in particular, it was not about the future, it was just talking about our family, my brothers and sisters, and I was telling all that I'd learned about them. It was a very together, and not a very dramatic, evening, but just a pleasant one. The kind of one that you might have a memory about as you were dying. Not a special evening, but just an ordinary evening.

I went to bed that night – which was a very difficult thing to do, because I was fully prepared at that point never to wake up again. I had been praying, I'd gotten everything arranged. At that point I'd fully gone through in my own mind, my own soul, all the things I might have regretted, and I had righted as many of those as I thought I could, through letters, and I was prepared, as much as anybody could be prepared to die.

I went to bed while the kids were still ringing doorbells. And I went to sleep because I was very tired after that long trip. And I didn't know what was going to happen the next day. I thought that I had done all that I could.

And, the next moring I woke up. And. The next morning I woke up and it was as if.

The next morning I woke up and it was as if I had the entire, my entire life again.

I had.

The next morning I woke up and I had my entire life again, I had my future again.

There was nothing special about the day. It was another ordinary day.

I was reborn into ordinariness.


What more could one ask for?


Nearly two decades after that happened, Kevin Kelly is now the Executive Editor of a magazine about the future, Wired Magazine.

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This Ira Glass interview with Kevin Kelly - slightly edited here - was broadcast as part of the very first episode of This American Life, November 11, 1995. You can - and really must - listen to the original interview here.