Planet Earth is a dangerous place. Its dangers are both natural and unnatural. Temporary and eternal. Shying away from danger is understandable, but timidity carries with it unexpected perils. The choices between fear and bravery sometimes blend into indistinguishable options—not really choices at all. Rather, they merely may be different paths leading to the same endpoint. Alternatives between known and unknown risks. Even known risks often come with unintended consequences, though, so “known” risks may not be entirely understood. Nothing is reliably predictable. So, is avoidance of potential dangers a pointless undertaking? No. But understanding that taking a potentially less dangerous path offers no guarantees tends to lessen one’s fears of danger.

Fear takes no more than two forms: apprehension about the prospect of emotional pain or dread of physical pain. That is all. Fear is nothing more than a warning against exposure to one (or both) of those two kinds of pain. People who claim to be “fearless” are simply more pain tolerant than others in their spheres. Or, at least, they claim to be more pain tolerant than others. Yet that very claim may be based on their fear that admitting their emotional unsteadiness could reveal a kind of fear they believe would expose them for what they are, deep inside. Shivering, quivering, shaking, quaking braggards. A little like the rest of us, in other words. But all of us somehow manage to suppress much of our fear; enough, at least, to enable us to go about our daily lives, for a time, on this dangerous planet.


Dreamless sleep must be akin to being under anesthesia; unconscious and unaware, as if one did not exist during the time of sleep. That is true, too, of anesthesia. I suspect death is an advanced, but eternal, version of that state of unconscious unawareness. The difference, of course, is that during dreamless sleep and anesthesia, one’s body continues to react to external stimuli; and its cells and organs are alive and performing their natural functions. In death, those functions cease. As expressed by Epicurus, “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.” From this doctrine arose the epitaph: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care). Our existence is proof that we are not dead. Our death is proof that we do not exist. Of course, the definition of “existence” may be open to debate; but I’ll leave that to the philosophers to decide—not that the pronouncements of philosophers carry any more weight than our own.

John Donne’s consideration of death gives us thoughts to ponder:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

And so I ponder, for just long enough to realize the exercise of pondering is, itself, pointless. Death does not die, John Donne’s assertion to the contrary notwithstanding. But there I go, pondering the imponderable. A wasteful pastime that has as much value as an invisible penny in an invisible jar filled with invisible water.


Philosophical discussions can be incredibly alluring. But the value of such discussions is quite hard to measure, even in the face of a clear mathematical formula: VALUE = FUNCTION/COST. The difficulty, of course, begins with attempting to quantify function and it continues with the effort to do the same with cost. Neither function nor cost rely on monetary measures, but agreement on nonmonetary measures is almost impossible to achieve. Thinking, itself, can be a fruitless endeavor. Or an endeavor whose outcomes are so esoteric as to be essentially meaningless. When one reaches these conclusions about life, raw physical pleasures become the only desirable refuges from the drudgery of living in a society gone stark-raving mad.


When I awoke, almost three hours ago, I was not sure what was on my mind. I remain unsure. I do recall an odd dream, though. Even though, yesterday, I cleaned and refilled the bird feeder outside my office window, I have seen no birds feeding there this morning. I am disappointed that the birds apparently have abandoned me. Disillusionment surrounds me, like a shroud. Today is Monday; shrouds should take the day off.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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