The Love of Life in the Face of Death: Keith Haring on Self-Doubt, the Fragility of Being, and Creativity as the Antidote to Our Mortal Anxiety
“It is very important to be in love with life… Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we ‘understand,’ there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.”
By Maria Popova
“Life loves the liver of it,” Maya Angelou observed as she contemplated the meaning of life in 1977, exhorting: “You must live and life will be good to you.”
That spring, the teenage Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990) — who would grow up to revolutionize not only art and activism, but the spirit of a generation and the soul of a city — grappled with the meaning of his own life and what it really means to live it on the pages of his diary, posthumously published as the quiet, symphonic wonder Keith Haring Journals (public library).
Five days before his nineteenth birthday and shortly before he left Pittsburgh, where he was attending art school, for a netless leap of faith toward New York City, he confronts the difficulty of knowing what we really want and writes:
This is a blue moment… it’s blue because I’m confused, again; or should I say “still”? I don’t know what I want or how to get it. I act like I know what I want, and I appear to be going after it — fast, but I don’t, when it comes down to it, even know.
In a passage of extraordinary precocity, he echoes the young Van Gogh’s reflection on fear, taking risks, and how inspired mistakes propel us forward, and considers how the trap of self-comparison is keeping him from developing his own artistic and human potential:
I guess it’s because I’m afraid. Afraid I’m wrong. And I guess I’m afraid I’m wrong, because I constantly relate myself to other people, other experiences, other ideas. I should be looking at both in perspective, not comparing. I relate my life to an idea or an example that is some entirely different life. I should be relating it to my life only in the sense that each has good and bad facets. Each is separate. The only way the other attained enough merit, making it worthy of my admiration, or long to copy it is by taking chances, taking it in its own way. It has grown with different situations and has discovered different heights of happiness and equal sorrows. If I always seek to pattern my life after another, mine is being wasted re-doing things for my own empty acceptance. But, if I live my life my way and only let the other [artists] influence me as a reference, a starting point, I can build an even higher awareness instead of staying dormant… I only wish that I could have more confidence and try to forget all my silly preconceptions, misconceptions, and just live. Just live. Just. Live. Just live till I die.
And then — in a testament to my resolute conviction, along with Blake, that all great natures are lovers of trees — he adds:
I found a tree in this park that I’m gonna come back to, someday. It stretches sideways out over the St. Croix river and I can sit on it and balance lying on it perfectly.
Within a decade, Haring’s resolve to “just live” until he dies collided with the sudden proximity of a highly probable death — the spacious until contracted into a span uncertain but almost certainly short as the AIDS epidemic began slaying his generation. A century after the uncommonly perceptive and poetic diarist Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant and sidelined sister — wrote upon receiving a terminal diagnosis that the remaining stretch of life before her is “the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Haring, having taken a long break from his own diary, returns to the mirror of the blank page and faces the powerful, paradoxical way in which the proximity of death charges living with life:
I keep thinking that the main reason I am writing is fear of death. I think I finally realize the importance of being alive. When I was watching the 4th of July fireworks the other night and saw my friend Martin [Burgoyne], I saw death. He says he has been tested and cleared of having AIDS, but when I looked at him I saw death. Life is so fragile.
In a sentiment evocative of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s memorable observation in his poetic and courageous exit from life that when people die, “they leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death,” Haring adds:
It is a very fine line between life and death. I realize I am walking this line. Living in New York City and also flying on airplanes so much, I face the possibility of death every day. And when I die there is nobody to take my place… That is true of a lot of people (or everyone) because everyone is an individual and everyone is important in that they cannot be replaced.
But even as he shudders with the fragility of life, Haring continues to shimmer with the largehearted love of life that gives his art its timeless exuberance:
Touching people’s lives in a positive way is as close as I can get to an idea of religion.
Belief in one’s self is only a mirror of belief in other people and every person.
He returns to the love of life that charged his days with meaning and his art with magnetism — a love both huge and humble, at the center of which is our eternal dance with mystery:
I think it is very important to be in love with life. I have met people who are in their 70s and 80s who love life so much that, behind their aged bodies, the numbers disappear. Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we “understand,” there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.
Again and again, Haring declares on the pages of his journal that he lives for work, for art — the purpose of which, of course, if there is any purpose to art, is to make other lives more livable. As the specter of AIDS hovers closer and closer to him, this creative vitality pulses more and more vigorously through him, reverberating with Albert Camus’s insistence that “there is no love of life without despair of life.”
In early 1988, weeks before his thirtieth birthday and shortly before he finally received the diagnosis perching on the event horizon of his daily life, Haring composes a seething cauldron of a journal entry, about to boil with the overwhelming totality of his love of life:
I love paintings too much, love color too much, love seeing too much, love feeling too much, love art too much, love too much.
By the following month, he has metabolized the terrifying too-muchness into a calm acceptance radiating even more love:
I accept my fate, I accept my life. I accept my shortcomings, I accept the struggle. I accept my inability to understand. I accept what I will never become and what I will never have. I accept death and I accept life.
After the sudden death of one of his closest friends in a crash — a friend so close that Haring was the godfather of his son — he copies one of his friend’s newly poignant poems about life and death into his journal, then writes beneath it:
Creativity, biological or otherwise, is my only link with a relative mortality.
But perhaps his most poignant and prophetic entry came a decade earlier — a short verse-like reflection nested in a sprawling meditation on art, life, kinship, and individuality, penned on Election Day:
I am not a beginning.
I am not an end.
I am a link in a chain.
Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990, barely into his thirties, leaving us his exuberant love of life encoded in mirthful lines and vibrant colors that have made millions of other lives — mine included — immensely more livable.
Couple with Drawing on Walls — a wonderful picture-book biography of Haring inspired by his journals — then revisit a young neurosurgeon’s poignant meditation on the meaning of life as he faces his own death, an elderly comedian-philosopher on how to live fully while dying, and an astronomer-poet’s sublime “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”
Published September 11, 2020