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Barbie, Tolstoy, and Irrepressible Thoughts of Death
You can be memento mori and still dance the night away
The movie Barbie is about death anxiety. Specifically, it’s about what irrepressible thoughts of death do to someone who has spent their entire lives fitting in. Barbie reminds me of Neo from The Matrix, entering the real world for the first time. She reminds me of Eve, gaining consciousness, meeting her creator, Ruth Handler, and accepting her earthly life. But, most of all, she reminds me of Leo Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, who, in the process of coming to peace with his impending death, learns about love, compassion, and the true priorities of life.
At its core, Barbie is about existential alienation upon confronting mortality. It’s about developing deep, purposeful desires that go beyond status, palazzos, and romantic jealousy. It’s about wanting immortal things—ideas—in a world where things are temporary. It’s what Romans 12:2 conveys when it tells us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Everyone knows they’re going to die, yet not everyone acts like it. We know that time is passing, yet we remain obsessed with prestige and we look for everlasting happiness in all the wrong places.
Like Barbie and Ivan Ilyich, what stops most people from living out their true selves is not ignorance of their own mortality but an inability to distinguish between wants and oughts. Where would you be if you focused on your deepest desires, your highest ideals, and your brightest North Star instead of what the world said you should do?
Let me tell you a bit about Ivan Ilyich first: He’s a Russian bureaucrat who realizes that he has wasted his entire life chasing status and worldly delights as he succumbs to his fatal illness. As his condition worsens—brought on by a freak accident in which he fell on his side while installing drapes in his glitzy new house—he realizes that all he wanted was to be cried over and pitied like a sick child. Instead, his wife spent his dying moments securing more money from his life insurance, his daughter worried about how his death would affect her wedding, his colleagues circled his soon-to-be empty desk like vultures around a dying cow, and his doctors all lied to him because none wanted to shoulder the responsibility of treating an untreatable case. It was on his deathbed that he first pondered the value of love and forgiveness.
He realized that he had attended law school only because it seemed like the right path for a smart child from a middle-class family. He had entered into marriage not for love or money particularly, but simply because it was the expected milestone at that age. He died like he lived: ensnared by a yuppie lifestyle, lost in vapid nouveau riche hobbies, surrounded by status-anxious snobs, and stuck compromising with people who were overly concerned with things that would hold no importance to a dead man. Here lies Ivan Ilyich, the man who went through the motions, not particularly pleased about it but did so anyway because it was socially comme il faut.
Many of us have reached a tipping point, a sudden, unforgettable moment of existential sobriety that prompted us to ask, WHAT AM I DOING HERE? For some, this led to you quitting your job (expect a future essay on this). Maybe you moved to a new city without explanation, started the business you’ve always dreamed of, or finally reached out to that person you’ve been meaning to speak to. Tolstoy beautifully explained this experience through the lens of terminal illness (which, sadly, is how many of us have our ‘Ivan Illyich moment’). But what he really meant is, why does it take the countdown of death for us to start taking our lives seriously? Isn't that countdown happening right now? If we could accept the ephemeral nature of human life with more grace, wouldn’t we feel more at peace with our fate? What will it take for you to start living with intention?
Life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is one hundred percent.
— R. D. Laing
It’s the age-old question of ‘If today were your last day on Earth, what would you do?’ But here’s the twist: Every day could be your last day. Eventually, one of these ‘every day’s will be your last. In fact, every day is your last until tomorrow confirms otherwise. So, every sleep is a miniature death, every morning a miniature resurrection, and every sunrise a new mercy. Tomorrow is a second chance, a grace drawn forth from nothing. Waking up is a privilege, yet we often treat it like a chore. This is what Eleanor Roosevelt meant when she said, “Today is a gift, that's why it's called the present.” It’s what Søren Kierkegaard meant when he said, “Once you are born in this world, you're old enough to die.” The clock is ticking—every moment is the oldest you’ve ever been and the youngest you’ll ever be.
Sharp moments of existential angst, like Barbie’s irrepressible thoughts of death, have the powerful ability to free us from conformity and skin-deep desires. We can no longer dance to a planned choreography with this new knowledge—I’ve certainly felt this type of alienation before, where everyone seemed to be following some unspoken agenda that I just couldn’t accept as the truth because it seemed so absurd and pointless. Whether it’s cellulite or a growing pain in your ribcage, a sudden fear of death, especially when brought on by a physical ailment, does that to you: It reminds you that you’re a soul trapped inside a body conscious of its fate. It’s a sudden feeling that you were meant for more than this, that you could become so much more if you utilized your talents with greater confidence and counted your blessings with greater sincerity.
You don’t need bad news from a doctor to start living. You don’t need scolding from a teacher or a parent to start living. You don’t need your boss to dismiss you to start living. You don’t need a terrible breakup to motivate you to hit the gym and get back in shape. You don’t need a major life tragedy to justify a spontaneous trip to somewhere beautiful. You don’t need anyone’s permission to start living; you can start tomorrow—or even right now. In fact, if you think about it in material terms, by the end of this essay, a small percentage of you is not who you were at the beginning (i.e., due to skin cell turnover).
You're under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.
— Alan Watts
For some, life is an existential stopwatch. For others, it is an existential countdown.
The common understanding of life is that it is one long event concluded by a single, brief occurrence (death). The unconventional perspective, though, argues that it’s death that forms the one long event, initiated by a single, brief occurrence (birth). The purpose of Barbie and Ivan Ilyich is to unveil this latter perspective. While a healthy balance is essential (you shouldn’t be consumed by irrepressible thoughts of death every waking moment), it’s important to recognize that time does not wait for anyone. As Marcus Aurelius advised, “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what's left and live it properly.” Despite our existential nature and the awareness of our mortality, we shouldn’t let it paralyze us. Rather, it should inspire us to desire grand and beautiful ideas that will outlast our earthly existence.
Thank you for reading (and please share!),
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