When I Am Gone
In the late spring of 2014, I left my home in Barcelona to walk in Norway for twenty days with my friend Jeppe. We planned to follow the last 300 kilometers of the pilgrim path to Trondheim, St. Olav’s Way, named after the Norwegian king who brought Christianity to Norway in ad 1033.
I am not a religious person; I do have not faith in any of the marketed Gods but a strong belief in life. And yet, during this journey, I experienced an encounter with a muskox that I can only describe as healing, perhaps even spiritual.
* * *
On our third or fourth day, Jeppe discovered fur from what he believed was a muskox hanging on the bush branches. The fur was soft and had a strong, seductive scent. We decided to follow the animal’s track and not the pilgrim path. Three hours later, we were rewarded when a muskox passed us running less than 100 meters away.
Could it smell us? Hear us?
A few hours later. as we were about to exit the denser part of the forest, another muskox stood less than fifteen meters in front of us.
“Look. Look!” I said.
As it began to move toward us, we threw our bodies down and hid behind a bush. We took off our backpacks. I grabbed my knife, and Jeppe grabbed his camera. It all happened fast, as pure instinct. Our actions might be seen as protecting life as well as documenting it, a combination that might actually be perfect. Nevertheless, neither of us was aware of the interval between the impulse—meeting the muskox—and our actions.
When it was less than five meters from us, we ran away; specifically, we climbed up a tree. Our hearts were pumping, our skin quivering. Why? I am not sure. It was bigger than a big cow, but in no way threatening. On the contrary, below us, the muskox strolled by, slowly, confidently, unaffected by our behavior. It wasn’t chasing us. Rather, sensing our presence, it looked up at us. It even paused under my fragile tree. I could smell it. For a few seconds, we made eye contact. Its brown eyes appeared to be glassy, probably due to age. It moved slowly, tired; intuitively I knew that it was facing death calmly.
Once it had passed us, Jeppe wanted to continue, but I couldn’t leave before the big animal was out of sight. I felt a strong connection to the muskox. Standing on a rock, I followed it with my eyes until it faded into the background of the woods.
Later, Jeppe seemed to regret his rush. “Why couldn’t I just be there with the muskox?”
I didn’t answer him, but I wondered why I wanted to be with it.
* * *
Now, recalling my encounter with the muskox, I can see that it helped me move beyond myself. That is, the desire to be somebody vanished, at the same moment the animal dissolved in the horizon. Meeting the muskox was a way of meeting myself, a part of myself, the imaginary clever know-it-all part.
I remember thinking while it stood under my tree: This muskox could have been me. In that moment, I thought that being a muskox wouldn’t be a bad life. I felt attracted to it, not only the animal’s smell and graceful moves, but also how peaceful it was as it searched for a place to die. It embodied joy even as it took its last tired steps out of life. It was like facing Socrates! To die at peace, I think, equals having lived a good life. I am convinced that I was the last living being that it encountered.
* * *
A week later, while eating lunch, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a strong urge to follow the muskox, to leave everything behind and just walk into the woods. The power of being fully aware of this vivid thought scared me. I felt nauseous, became cold, and began to sweat. I might add that I am a father of three small children. So, what scared me was not just the thought of abandoning my wife and children for a life as a muskox, but rather how sane and healthy the impulse seemed.
An few hours later, while I was literally just trying to breathe, I felt a sudden rush of liberation. I accepted that I could never leave my family until it really was my time (that is, if I am lucky enough to reach such a point in life, and not be killed in an accident, or by a intoxicated driver since drinking and driving is common in Barcelona). The point was, of course, not whether I should leave my family or not, but the fact that being alive was plenty. Experiencing the muskox saunter through its last moment of life illustrated how a lived experience doesn’t mean doing a lot of things. Not even being somebody. Rather, it means living intense, that is, being fully aware of what matters.
This realization was more than the evident fact that my children matter more than my writings. It was more fundamental. Instead of trying to be somebody clever, I just felt empowered by life itself. Now, as I mentioned it, I can see that it sounds like a spiritual experience. And yet it was very concrete and solid. It had a smell, a connective look in-between two sentient beings; there was a way of moving.
I am tempted to call it a joyous experience. According to the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, joy is “what follows that passion by which the mind passes to a greater perfection. And by Sadness, that passion by which it passes to a lesser perfection.”
Joy is the opposite of sadness, an emotion that is related to the past, whereas joy is related to the present. I have always had a tendency toward nostalgia, the kind that caused me to feel depressed. That tendency began to dissolve the day I meet the muskox. Why? I don’t know. It was a radical acceptance that my life has no coherent thread; rather, it’s a rhapsodic flow of what affects me.
To put it even more plainly: Meeting the muskox allowed me to consciously experience the joy of being alive. It’s embarrassingly trivial, but now I don’t worry about being trivial. Life is trivial, not banal. Joy is, after all, a process toward perfection, a passage; it’s something that emerges from between two states of mind, between what is emerging and what is dying. So, between being born and dying you can become livelier, more alive and kicking.
The muskox’s eyes were glassy with gratitude.
I hope that one day I can kiss my children before I blend in with what is still here, when I am gone.
Finn Janning has studied philosophy, literature and business administration at Copenhagen Business School (CBS), and at Duke University. He earned his PhD in practical philosophy from CBS. His work has been featured in Epiphany, Under the Gum Tree, South 85 Journal, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, among other publications. He lives in Barcelona, Spain with his wife and their three children.