When Are We?

I used to drive my parents and my teachers crazy with impossible-to-answer questions that I wouldn’t leave alone. But if they thought I was annoying them, they had no idea what I was doing to myself. Because the same questions — and much worse — were constantly spinning through my young and ignorant noggin. I mean, almost nothing about life has ever made sense to me. I’ve devoted the majority of the last thirty or so years puzzling for answers, and all I’ve come up with are even more vexing questions.

Many of the questions that really used to bug me as a kid centered around the concept of death and the afterlife. I hit an age around ten or eleven where I became obsessed with — and mortified by — the idea of dying. I would lie in my bed at night and be so scared of going to sleep. I thought I’d never wake up again. I tried to imagine what death would be like if there was no afterlife, and I saw it as this complete blackness that I couldn’t even see! I was scared stiff. Literally. Lying motionless, clutching my sheets, staring at the ceiling, keeping that encroaching darkness at bay.

I wrote dismal poetry for years because of this. I thought I was alone in these nightly terrors until I saw What About Bob, where the son has the same questions and fears, and this was extremely and gratifyingly normalizing. The terror has since gone away, but all the questions linger. Among them is this question: If there is an afterlife, which version of us persists forever?

Because it occurred to me early in life that we aren’t the same person day to day, much less year to year or decade to decade. I think it was watching my grandfather succomb to Alzheimer’s that clued me in. He became a different person right before our eyes. And even as a very young tyke, I was reading about people like Phineas Gage, who suffered a massive brain trauma and saw his personality change overnight. And what about the young who die before they grow into their adult personalities? Or the infants who never say a word or have a coherent thought before some childhood disease or birthing complication claims them? Are we the average of all our selves? Is the version of “us” that we leave behind our prime one, or the fragile form we often inhabit last?

I had a friend, Anna, whose death shakes me to this very day. She was a senior in high school when she died in a car accident. I was with Anna earlier that day, at the beach, and she was alive, smiling, brilliant, beautiful, with a world of possibilities before her. I’m still very close with her mom, and we talk about Anna all the time. She’s always with us in spirit. And she’s frozen in time at very close to the apex of her potential. She missed out on all that she would accomplish in life, and the family she might’ve had, and the journey she would’ve gone on, but she was the age and inquisitiveness and brightness that I think we tend to see ourselves locked in if life were to continue on forever.

At the same time Anna died, I watched my grandfather wither, and I wondered which version of him was the real him. At seventeen years of age, we’re trying desperately to find ourselves. Little do we know at that age — but the challenge is never resolved. Our personalities, ambitions, peer groups, careers, and so much more are always on the move. And as we try to locate ourselves in some sort of cartesian grid, now we have a fourth axis on which we slide: The fourth dimension of time.

It’s not just the global human question of What are we? or the more personal and intimate question of Who are we? or the cosmic query Why are we? it’s also the baffling concept of When are we?

For many reading this, I am thought of as an author. But I don’t feel like an author. Because that’s such a new part of my life. I’ve been writing for just over five years. I’ve been doing much else for a lot longer than that. Any question of who I am relies on when I am. It also relies on when the people in your life get to know you, and in what context. This is why the bond we have with our family is so unique: they know many of our selves. It’s also the magic of long term relationships, because we get to share quite a few of our selves with the same person, and we get to know quite a few of their selves.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I prepare to move back aboard a boat and live on the sea. Because that is largely who I am. It might not be the person this blog has materialized around, but it’s the person who started this blog. I’ve been a vagabond and a dilettante for most of my life. Amber and I often say that we can do one thing or be in one place for a maximum of five years. Even that is a stretch. Some might see this as a character flaw; I just know it as part of who I am. I want to experience much in life. I think it all goes back to that early fear of death. I haven’t lost that fear so much as coped with it by choosing to live what I consider fully.

Of course, everyone has a different opinion of what it means to live a full life. These are subjective measures. Personally, I would argue that someone who commits to healing others, as Amber has, or teaching others, as my mom did, or growing crops, as my father did, live a fuller and more meaningful life than I ever will. My life has been about the fear of sitting still. Perhaps that’s a bad thing. I would hate to inspire more of it, but I will say to any who dream of breaking out of their routines but aren’t sure how or when the time is right: The time is always right.

It doesn’t have to be anything as drastic as living on a boat, something I first chose to do when I was twenty years old. It might be simply to start exercising more. Or to write that novel you’ve always dreamed of. Or to take that job opportunity. Or to simply quit the job that makes you miserable and move to another state, not scared of the unknown but eager for new opportunities. My brother did this, and it was petrifying to watch, and now he’s happier than he’s ever been. My sister continues to amaze me with her bold life choices and her willingness to take big chances. It’s the secret to not having regrets. And the more we move, the more we might get confused by When we are. And I think this confusion can be a very good thing.

The worst part of the illusion of permanence of self is that it traps us into thinking we’re destined to be a certain way. The memory of our former selves can be ruinous. Not because there was anything wrong with our former selves, but because that memory masquerades as some rigid reality, when it was more of a flowing illusion. Self-improvement and personal growth are made more difficult when we’re resigned to being who we recall. And it might be a case of fibbing to ourselves, but there’s something advantageous to remembering the best parts of our pasts and aiming to emulate that, and realizing that the worst parts of our pasts are things we can strive to change. That wasn’t who we are. It was just one of many when we were.

And how do we know who we can be if we don’t sample much of what life has to offer? Again, this might mean nothing more than taking a wide variety of college courses with our minds open to what our major might be. Or skipping spring break and spending that week volunteering in a different state. Or getting our of our homes on the weekends and being a tourists somewhere an hour’s drive away. Or just walking the dog a direction we never go, giving both our noses something new to sniff. It can be anything. A return to a former passion or a striving for a new one.

As I sit here in South Africa, working on the boat that will be my future home, there’s a mix of both: A return to a former way of life, but also an urge to see beyond the horizon. The people who have known me the longest and know me best are less surprised about me moving on board a boat than I imagine they were about me living on land for so long. Those who got to know me through my writing think I’m doing something crazy. I thought the last five years of my life was the crazy bit. It’ll be interesting to see what the combination looks like, as I plan to keep on writing.

I can also remember friends and family members always commenting on how crazy they thought my life was, taking off on boats to distant islands, or driving across the country, or working some weird job, and for a while there I thought that maybe I was just lucky to have these opportunities come to me. But when I looked more closely, I saw wild and varied opportunities were there for most people, but it just felt safer and easier for them to decline. Not me. I always said “yes.” To just about anything.

This doesn’t make me brave, by the way. I’m a chickenshit. I’m a coward. I’m terrified of lost opportunities. I’m terrified of a life squandered. I quake with the thought of routines, where day piles upon day until they are all remembered as a single average of themselves, none of them standing out, so that our seventy years on Earth feels more like some vague twenty four hours. This is my fear. It is not courage. I don’t jump off cliffs because the fall is nothing to me; I jump because I feel an encroaching flame at my back. I jump, because to stay feels like certain death.

Douglas Jumping

Here’s a picture of my friend Douglas jumping off a literal cliff. We were on a little island in the middle of nowhere, and we both got there by leaving our jobs in an instant when a boat passed through town on the way to China. We were young, without the families we have now, but we were both moving forward in our careers with opportunities just ahead, opportunities that were created by and promised us more routine. It was crazy to jump on this boat. No pay. No certain future. A very difficult decision. We never made it to China, as a dozen things went wrong along the way. Instead, we ended up marooned in paradise, where we enjoyed what remains some of the best weeks of our short lives, and we wouldn’t change a thing. I’m glad we jumped. And I’m glad we didn’t stay. A fire crackles at my back, and I move, terrified, leaping, plummeting, with a smile on my face.


33 responses to “When Are We?”

  1. This post brought me to tears. Have you been following me? ; )

    As someone who also feared death growing up–and I mean stayed awake so many nights imagining death and the idea of eternal life (surprisingly terrifying than death, I concluded one night at 10 years old, though it didn’t make death less terrifying)—I relate so much to what you wrote in this moving post. But, unlike you, my fear of death took me on the path of inaction more often than not. It made me fear living for fear of dying. Well, at least in the past five years it has.

    Lately I’ve been thinking of moving again, a move that would render me more or less absolutely alone. When you write about people knowing you at various stages of when, I can honestly say that not a soul I would know or even be able to call would know me that well, including what little family I have. It’s a different kind of alone that not a lot of people understand.

    And yet, I suspect you might understand on some level, which gives me hope that others might, too. And in hoping that and maybe even expecting that, I’ll probably find it. Thank you for the wonderful gift of this post. You have no idea.

  2. Man on the Moon:

    Andy Kaufman: You don’t know the real me.
    Lynne Margulies: There isn’t a real you.
    Andy Kaufman: Oh yeah, I forgot.

  3. So thoughtful and well spoken, Hugh. Thank you, I needed to read this today :)

  4. Thanks for sharing your insight. I have long been intrigued by the WHEN. I was first taken as I read Bertrand Russell’s “My Philosophical Development” when he discussed his evolving self. A fine example of this incredible thinker’s malleability was the he was for the nuclear bomb and then later against. Another great literary example was Alex Haley’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X” where he detailed the life of a man that, through chapters in his life, encompassed polarities of thinking and expression. My wife teases me when I talk about phases of my own life. She refers to Dustin Hoffman’s movie “Little Big Man” and the character’ gunfighter phase as the Soda Pop Kid. I thinks import that we have been and are all of those things, yet the river of our existence is in constant motion, so we can never jump back to the same place twice.

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I’m still mulling it around in my head, and why it spoke so clearly/deeply to me this morning.

  6. Hugh: What a provocative post. I’ve been thinking about you and your next phase as a boat-living writer wandering the world. I don’t doubt you’ll love it.

    My biggest leap was leaving an unhappy marriage, after knowing it wasn’t good for a decade and finally deciding to make the change. My reward has been an amazing new life and marriage… all worth it, but with costs. I’m watching many end-of-life situations now as one friend just lost a parent, several friends have cancer, and my former mother-in-law is in the hospital. It goes quickly; make it worthwhile.

    Thanks for this.


  7. Good post and great ideas. I kind of feel the same way at this point in my life. There a fire at my back telling me to do something different, change it up, but I have no idea how to do that or what I would. I’m kind of stuck right now, kids, house, job, etc. Not that that stuff is bad, I enjoy being a father, a husband and bread-winner but its my job that’s sucking the life out of me. I wish I had a roadmap or crystal ball that told me where I should go next. Sigh. I’ll figure it out eventually its just annoying at the moment. ;)

  8. Thanks for sharing your journey. I sign my books “enjoy the journey” because I feel that’s not just who we are but what we are.

    I drive my daughter batty because I keep stressing time is a fourth dimension and just another way of pinpointing your locality in space.
    I believe we will ultimately exist outside time and that time is a construct for our organic computer coded (DNA RNA) bodies, which exist within this electric/holographic universe. (Which the Scriptures back up BTW). All my sci fi stories come from this basic premise base on Halton Arp’s, and David Bohm’s quantaum physics analyses.

  9. We need healers, and teachers, and crop-growers, but we also need deep thinkers and dilettantes, even if only to remind the rest of us why we’re here and what we’re capable of. You do you, and be proud of it.

  10. this question would have had an effect on me years ago, but no longer. In my 50 years I have come to some of my own conclusions.
    There is no life after death, no gods, no magic in the world. There are just people, hairless apes still afraid of what we don’t understand.
    The meaning of life is the meaning you choose to give it.
    And why fear death? Do you fear sleeping? We are like light bulbs, when we wear out we turn off and will never even knew we shown at all.
    Like the comedian Jim Jeffries said “you know why I am not afraid of death? Because I will be dead”,

  11. I grew up an army brat. I moved every summer from kindergarten through 6th grade. I only went to the same elementary school two years in a row one time. As a result, i’m extremly flexible and at ease in new situations. On the other hand….after two years SOMETHING has to change…i either need to move, change jobs, get a new car….SOMETHING. I view my history not by what year it was…but by what city i was in…what state…what country.

  12. My wife and I stand upon that cliff, now. She will jump at the end of June. My goal is a year and a half later, but this so makes me want to jump with her. I really should, while I can still swim. Thank you for putting this into words.

  13. A lot of this really hit home for me, and I thank you for sharing it. Going through life changes, such as a divorce, marriage, relocation or changing jobs are almost always times of reflection.

    What lies ahead? Is it going to be better than what I’ve enjoyed in the past, or worse? I think it’s only natural to think things through as you stand on the tipping point of a major decision, but I agree that the problem lies in over-thinking them. People need to realize they are free to do whatever they want in life, to be who they are meant to be and be wherever they feel they need to be to do that.

    Right now, that place for me is in a stationary spot in central Maine, making sure that my 13 year old son graduates High School and moves on to whatever education/employment is best for him. My ex wife was the one who took off for greener pastures in Florida, and for a while I had a hard time with that. Not because I missed her, but because I knew my son would. I’ve made my peace with it, as has he, and we both accept now that Florida is where she needs to be to live the life she wants to live. We don’t resent it, we’re too busy doing exactly what we want here in Maine.

    Even if you don’t feel like living a life of adventure, jetting (or sailing) off to different locales at the drop of the hat, there is still a way to avoid living in the past. You focus on what’s next, on getting where you want to be in life, financially, career-wise, or in any metric that feels important to you. It’s more about finding what’s meaningful to you, and going after it. Hugh, I’m happy that you are getting back out on the seas, it sounds as though it’s really what you need right now. Godspeed, and I’m glad that social media and your writing will allow us to go on this next stage of your life’s journey as well.

    “The purest joy is a life well lived.” Not sure who said that, but they were right.

  14. Connie Fogg-Bouchard Avatar
    Connie Fogg-Bouchard

    i know that it is so cliche’ but life is a journey and even going backwards is going forwards. when we go Home, all of those pieces are the ‘when’ of us. we are so very, very wise when we are young. we become so incredibly stupid but so full of dreams in our younger years and as time passes, we grab a dream or two, roll with them and journey on. at our end, our real odyssey has just begun and we are truly who we are supposed to be. but we would never have gotten to that point if we hadn’t jumped off a cliff and climbed aboard a passing steamer bound for….

  15. Wow! This post spoke to me. Your journey is so inspiring, Hugh. I had some of the exact same fears as a child. It’s so important to take risks, venture out, and try new directions. Life is an adventure and it’s meant to be lived! Good for you.

  16. “Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.

    He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”
    ― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

  17. Kathleen Berns Avatar

    I admire you. You are adventurous and not afraid to take a chance. My father too, died of Alzheimer’s this past January, and now my mom is in hospice. I’ve got two teen daughters (one of which you met last year at Atlanta’s Dragon Con-she was the Green Night!) and life certainly does go on. Wow! Best of luck to you on your voyage and please keep writing. We hope you come back to DragonCon Atlanta!!!

    1. Kathleen Berns Avatar

      I mean “Knight” not “night”!

  18. As I started to read this post, I had an answer as to which “when” we are at the time we pass from this world. Then, as you kept bringing up various points, questions and others awkward devices that didn’t fit neatly within my set answer, I realized that I would have to think about this some more. That is what real writers do, Hugh, they entertain, sure, but they also force their readers to rethink everything, even those base concepts that were once unimpeachable. Thank you!

    As I read through the entire blog, I thought of the epic hero in virtually any story, who starts out in one place, and for whatever reason, embarks on a journey to “save the world” and in the process, finds that they have become someone totally new and different from where they started. Not sure if that’s the real idea here, but it’s the image my mind conjured up while reading.

  19. When are we? Right now, that’s when. Right here, right now – this moment.

    We are all consciousness, awareness in every human being. Some of us more awake than others and others just dead asleep.

    I’ve been to the other side, behind the veil, or whatever you want to call it, and I can tell you it is absolutely brilliant. Love beyond meaning. There is no place for fear. There are no words to describe it because most of us haven’t experienced it, and others have made it up which makes it worse for those of us who have actually experienced it.

    Godspeed my friend, thank you for enlightening us with your words and your experience.

  20. Which version of us persists forever? IMHO – The one deep into the core, the spirit if you will -who you are. The one that has experienced, loved and offered everything they have in this lifetime, lived life and done their best in the world. The most authentic, loving one.


    PS, If you ever want to read stuff on a beautiful sunny day upon your new boat, check out Ken Wilbur. Not light reading but some pretty damn cool stuff on the integral theory.

  21. Thanks for this. I have lived several lives and started over many times. Made lots of mistakes along the way. I get very uneasy when things stay the same for too long, and for a while I saw it as a flaw. Maybe it is, but I choose to embrace it anyway!

  22. This post brought to mind one of my favorite quotes:

    “I’d rather be a could-be if I cannot be an are, because a could-be is a may-be who is reaching for a star; I’d rather be a has-been than a might-have-been by far, for a might-have-been has never been but a has was once an are.” -Milton Berle.

    Also check out the book The World of End. Different take on the afterlife and fairly enjoyable. Really takes into account your “when we are” question in parts.

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing : ).

  23. I loved this post.

    You are inspiring not because you have advice on what people should do, but because you choose so often to be YOU. And we can all learn from that. Not how to be more like Hugh Howey, but how to be more authentically ourselves.

    And that’s why I”m a fan, even though I get seasick and sunburnt, and your dreams of wandering hold no appeal to me–I relate deeply to the need to be true to yourself, and always appreciate the reminder:)

  24. This may be one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read- honest, inspiring, so eloquently written. Thank you Hugh, for sharing your journey with us.

  25. I think it’s a very fine line between fear and courage. The one sort of begets the other, you know? Or maybe it’s a struggle of ‘which is most scary’. I’ve always had that feeling that somewhere, just around the corner, I was missing out on something – a party, a crazy stunt, a lifetime of potential – so I’ve spent most of my adult life looking for it.
    Leaving home to ‘travel the world’ for the first time was the single scariest thing I’ve ever done.
    And not the most successful, either; I only got as far as France.
    But the fear of staying where I was, at home in the UK, and falling into the trap of ‘normal life’, was so great that it drove me to try again – and this time I was a little more successful. Well, there was a lot of bleeding involved, and I got shot at, electrocuted, temporarily blinded and bitten by a crocodile, but I still count it as a success.
    I think the fear of monotony and missed opportunities was the flip side of the same coin – the other being the courage I needed to leave the UK. Of course, it only seemed like courage in hindsight, after I’d changed my underwear and mopped up the mess. But from that day until this, I’ve been a firm advocate of such cliches as ‘following your dream’ – and I usually open by asking people, if they’re more worried about what will happen if they try – or what will happen if they don’t.
    Answer that question, and the rest is easier than being molested by a French pensioner on a dark road through the Alps…

  26. Is it possible that we are always the same person?

    We DECIDE to “change”. Therefore, these values were already there.

    When inexperience is confronted with life, our deepest values are activated and we appear to change.

  27. Though I disagree with a good portion of your post, Hugh, I really like the fact that you write about these sorts of topics. It always makes for engaging and lively conversation. I definitely agree with not being afraid to take risks. I quit my job in April, 2008, because I hated it, without knowing, of course, that the economy was going to collapse six months later. I was back in school for a couple of years and began writing my first novel in the school library in between study sessions. It was a really stressful time in my life, to a point where I did some physical damage to myself (fine now, though), but now I have a good job in a career path that I like. It’s not writing, but its much better than where I had been. Meanwhile I continue to write for the love of it. I would encourage anyone to take that risk–take that leap of faith–and I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed.

  28. […] existentialism: when are we? by Hugh Howey – which goes well with these meme I found on […]

  29. matthew woodham Avatar
    matthew woodham

    WOW! I love this blog post. Love it.
    I too was, and still am terrified of death, and although not a nice affliction I’m glad I’m not the only one.

  30. “But I don’t feel like an author. Because that’s such a new part of my life.”

    Wow. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

    This post rang a lot of bells for me. It’s amazing how much time we waste on labelling ourselves and others, isn’t it? I do it all the time, even though it seems so trite to ask ‘what do you do?’ as the requisite follow-up question right after ‘what’s your name’? But I do it all the same. Maybe I’ll try to stop that habit lol.

    Thanks for the awesome blog and for the thoughtful posts, I always find something intriguing to read here and it’s one of the few blogs I keep coming back to. Much appreciated Hugh!

  31. Wow. Yes. The longest I lived somewhere was 3 years. Moved all over the country. Worked all kinds of jobs from cafeteria lady in the mental ward to sandwich delivery to painting scenery in Hollywood. I get it. But as I get older the longer I stay put. I may have finally found a place that provides enough stimuli to keep me here. Perhaps like your boat, I’ve found the place that suits me best.

    And as I get older, (60 next year! how did that happen?) I think about death and that childhood fear is back full throttle. It does make me do a lot more of what I want to make sure it happens in my lifetime.

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