It’s one of the most surprising scenes in literature and film. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden walks into a 24-hour convenience store and puts a gun to the head of the cashier. It’s an act of disturbing violence and cruelty.
“Give me your wallet,” Tyler says as he presses the barrel against the man’s temple. Then he reads off his name and address: Raymond K. Hessel, 1329 SE Benning, Apartment A. “What did you want to be, Raymond K. Hessel?” Tyler asks, seeing the expired student ID card in the wallet. Then he cocks the pistol. “The question, Raymond, was what did you want to be?”
You start to squirm in your seat as you witness this. Please don’t kill him, please don’t kill him. Because up to this point, Tyler Durden has been clever and cool. He has not been a murderer. Is that going to change? Finally, to our relief, Hessel, panicking, manages to stammer out an answer. A vet, he wanted to be a veterinarian, he says, but gave up because it was too hard, too much school. And now here he is, working behind a counter. Tyler, still holding the gun to his head, makes this promise: If Hessel isn’t back in school by the time he returns in a year, he’s going to kill him.
It’s a dark scene, for sure. But it’s also beautiful. “Tyler is practicing a form of tough love,” Fight Club’s author Chuck Palahniuk writes in his new book, Consider This. “Tyler reminds the man of his mortality.” He is doing what the Stoics tried to do to themselves constantly: To remember that there is a gun pointed at our heads always—that we do not have time to waste or fritter away.
“You could leave life right now,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Do everything as if it was the last thing you were doing in your life, he said. Seneca even tells us a story of an emperor who did have the power to kill, as Tyler Durden did in fiction, and said to a weeping prisoner, Is the life you’re living really all that different than being dead?
Well, that’s the question and command today: Do not be Raymond K. Hessel. Do not give up on your dreams or live a kind of living death. You have to seize this moment. You have to let your awareness of your mortality give you urgency and purpose. You have to show up. You have to live each second as if it was the last thing you were doing in your life.
Because Tyler Durden or not, it just might be.