My mother-in-law had a birthday brunch on New Years Day. A bunch of us sat around a long table at this Mediterranean restaurant in SoHo. I mostly talked to my step-father-in-law, who sat next to me. Retirement is a frequent topic of our discussion as his plan seems to be evolving. I asked him what the advantages are of joining a retirement community as opposed to living independently in the city. The deal with private retirement homes, he explained, is that they take care of you even if you lose your memories.
Whenever I played Monopoly as a kid, I didn’t want the game to end if I was winning. Being rich gave me power over other players and made me feel good, but as soon as the game ended, the big pile of money and the rows of properties I had, lost their meaning entirely. Even if I kept them, nobody would feel envious. My power was valid only so long as everyone agreed to abide by the rules of the game.
We think a game and “real life” are different, but they aren’t. Communism, for instance, was frightening to the rich people because it threatened to end the game in real life. Imagine being rich, owning a bunch of properties, and having billions of dollars in the bank. If everyone decided to become a communist, all that wealth would be gone overnight as if your life was nothing more than a game of Monopoly. Screaming, “That building is mine!” would be as silly as waving a wad of Monopoly money.
It’s not just wealth that’s artificial; it’s about everything you’ve achieved in your life. Let’s say you are Martin Scorsese. One day, suddenly, everyone loses their memories. Nobody knows who you are. Even if they watch your films again, nothing makes sense to them. Imagine the frustration; you have a bunch of Oscars on your bookshelf, but nobody knows what they are. A thousand years ago, this is what happened if you moved to a foreign country.
Our fear of death is mostly about losing the values attached to the identities we have built in our lives. We fear the loss because we think they are real. As in the film, The Matrix, it’s hard to come to the realization that it’s entirely make-believe, wholly reliant on other people’s willingness to play by the rules.
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