German philosopher Martin Heidegger is famous for his theory of Dasein, or “There-Being.” For Heidegger, the temporary nature of things renders them meaningful. Thus, meaning in a person’s life comes from the acknowledgement that one cannot do everything before they die. One action or decision precludes others. Anyone who has walked into a bookshop and realized that they cannot read every book will understand this concept. Thus, we exist as Beings limited “There” to a particular stretch of space and time.

Heidegger has been on my mind lately. I, like many others, recently faced several endings in quick succession. A few weeks ago, Phil, a friend and a man whom I very much admire, passed away. A few days later, I was abruptly told to leave the United Kingdom as my visiting student program was one of the first that Middlebury closed outside of China and Italy.

In a sense, both events were long-expected. Over a series of months, I made myself at home in Oxford. My newly-found church family contributed immensely to this sense of belonging. I met with this close-knit group, of which Phil was a central member, numerous times a week for dinners, devotions and lots of coffee. The deeper I laid roots in Oxford, the more I anticipated the inevitable pain of leaving at the end of the year. I spent months looking for ways to extend my stay. When that looked unlikely, I looked for ways to return as soon as possible. By the time our program was cancelled, I had already come to terms with leaving in April. What was it to me, then, that this departure was suddenly a few weeks earlier?

I first learned about Phil’s illness on my return from Christmas vacation. It wasn’t discussed at length but it hung over our morning coffees. When it was brought up, it was discussed with Phil’s usual sense of humour and reflection. One Sunday morning, he and his wife told us about the trials of finding a gravesite. They arrived at a cemetery and Phil introduces himself to the unsuspecting worker as “one of their future residents.” He was then asked, in all seriousness, whether he would like a gravesite with a view. When he wasn’t joking about his death, he took it calmly in stride. One morning as I was leaving coffee, he stopped me to thank me for recognizing his existence. That was so essentially Phil. He may have also been thinking about death à la Heidegger (he was a retired philosophy professor after all) or maybe he wasn’t. Phil could talk on a range of topics, from Nietzsche to limericks, but he was always principally concerned with making a human connection.

The news of Phil’s death hit hard. The sense that time is fleeting was reinforced by the news of my peers’ and my own imminent departure later that week. Many of my peers, naturally, were crushed by the sudden dashing of their semester plans. People had postponed travel plans until the calmer, latter half of the semester. Our triumphal last week before break was filled instead with last-minute travel arrangements, rushed work that couldn’t be brought home and desperate attempts to sightsee.

In the early afternoon of my last day in Oxford, I went to church for Phil’s funeral. Sitting in my pew among people I love, I was surprised to find how much of Phil’s life spoke to ways I had grown in the last several months. He was, in his own words, “a washed-up philosophy tutor” who had no qualms discussing Hegel with his plumber or Nietzsche at church dinners. He was a writer who regularly contributed to his newspaper. He was deeply religious and had even become, for a time, a Carmelite priest. Fundamentally, he was full of love for others. His personability mixed intimately with his religious and academic passions.

Heidegger draws a distinction between one’s “ownmost death” and the death of others. In the experience of someone else’s death, one loses one relationship (to the deceased) whereas, in one’s own death, every relation to the external world dissolves. For Heidegger, one’s death is “ownmost” because it is the reference point which defines all of one’s Being. Another’s death is merely a reminder of one’s own, imminent death. In such moments, one feels “Anxiety,” a term Heidegger uses to denote the specific existential dread that comes from the anticipation of the end of one’s existence.

If this is the case, then the Anxiety I felt at Phil’s passing was not what I would have expected. The drive to throw myself into Being could be described with the imperative “Carpe Diem.” Yet, the well-known formulations of “Carpe Diem,” “to suck out all the marrow of life,” or “that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse” are now so often repeated they have become cliché. It is easy to forget that the things you do today, in the moment, will forever be part of your existence. In moments of Anxiety, one remembers that we only exist There, in a small stretch of space and time.

“There” hardly seems an appropriate word in this time of self-isolation. At the moment, we all wish we could be “there” — or anywhere, really, but here. I have it easier than most; my self-isolation goals of reading and writing are encouraged rather than prevented by being stuck inside. Still, it seems to me that seizing one’s brief life is easier out there than it is in here. The phrase “Carpe Diem” is most often invoked when we are out in the world, with a myriad of possibilities before us.

It becomes even more important at times when our possibilities are curtailed to what can be accomplished in living rooms while wearing pyjamas. It is much harder to suck the marrow out of life when we are forced inside, Here, away from each other and the world. At a time when nearly everything has been put on hold, it is so much more important not put our lives on hold as well.

As I travelled back to the US, I thought about my classmates’ abroad experiences. Many of them had expected to travel in this latter portion of the term. Having been evacuated, their abroad memories won’t be nearly as full of travel as they may have expected. Instead, their memories will consist chiefly of day-to-day life, when we took time for granted. If that’s true of the unexpected ending to our semester abroad, how much more will that be true when the end of our lives come? Phil made me want to be something more than I am today. His death reminded me that that has to happen now. Our lives will only ever be what we can make of them today. Here and now.

Ben Beese is a member of the class of 2021.5.

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