An Open Letter: Why Death is Our Greatest Teacher

Imagine that right now you’re late for an appointment because you’re stuck in a traffic jam. Your blood is boiling and it takes every fibre of your being to not lay on the horn, flip the bird, and swerve onto the shoulder to get past everyone.

Imagine missing that appointment; now you’re so damn upset that you can’t stop thinking about how you’ll have to reschedule it. Then, because you’re so distracted, you inadvertently get into a small, unnecessary argument with a colleague later that day. Now you’re tweaked. Your mind replays the conversation over and over and over again – each time trying to figure out what you might have said differently. Finally, you’re home from your no good, very bad day and are about to sit down for dinner with the family, except you’re not really there. Your kids or spouse (or both) have been excited to see you all day but you’re still reliving that god damn traffic jam and the irrelevant squabble that you barely say two words to anyone. When you’re washing the dishes later, you don’t even remember what you ate.

Your night ends with a restless sleep…

Now imagine that yesterday, the day before all these things happened, you had died.

But by some divine or scientific miracle, you got to live that same no good, very bad day again.

Do you think you’d live out each of those moments a bit differently? Do you think you’d be pumping the serotonin and enjoying the gift of life pulsating with incredible beauty in every present moment? Do you think you’d find time to look at the sky or hum to the sound of good music playing during your traffic jam? Do you still think that appointment was so dire? Do you think you might just share a laugh with that person you’d ended up squabbling with?

Do you think you’d savour every bite of that delicious meal? Would you want to look your children and spouse deeply in the eyes, tell them you love them and hold them close as they fall asleep – feeling each of their perfect breaths as their chests melodically rise up and down?

My guess is you would.

It’s an endless cliché, but still, it remains true: Death is one of the very best means by which to appreciate life.

Regularly, Stoics’ meditation on death was called Memento Mori.

 

The First Principal of the Bushido – the way of the warrior – is to keep death in mind at all times. If a warrior keeps death in mind at all times and lives as though each day might be his last, he will conduct himself properly in all his actions.

So why am I talking about death?

Well, a few years ago, my dear friend passed away unexpectedly, leaving two beautiful children and a loving wife behind. Even though I was in my late twenties, this was my first experience with the passing of a loved one. I was angry. Why had such a terrible tragedy happened? In my grief, I began a more purposeful contemplation on death. Over time, this has changed how I look at things.

During my contemplation process, it became glaringly evident how present death is for us at all times. It’s plastered all over the shows we watch; there’s potential for it in a simple crossing of the street or climbing of a mountain. One way or another, we’re always trying to not die and we have absolutely no idea when we, or anyone else, will. This terrifies us, pisses us off, and we try to forget about it because it’s just way too depressing to keep in our minds.

But is it such a bad thing to think about death?

Instead of fearful thoughts, we can accept that we have this moment, and this moment alone, to think good thoughts, be present, and love deeply. Life isn’t something you get to have, it is something you get to experience.

So, why is that so hard to do? Well, that answer is long and I won’t get into all of it in this blog; but hopefully, I can help shed some helpful light on the topic.

I often ask myself what it is in me that makes me so afraid to live at times. What part of me can live in the moment with the incessant chattering in my head about past events or future plans?

I have a hunch it’s my desire to accomplish things, make a name for myself, and create a legacy that keeps me going. All this has kept (and all too often still keeps) me busy with my nose to the grindstone.

Then, I stumbled upon a Pulitzer Prize-winning book called The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. This book surmises that we humans have a pretty damn good ability to conceptualize a version of life without us in it (aka “What will happen when I’m gone?”) and this stokes the fire that unpins the actions we take in life.

Essentially, the meaning of our lives is shaped by our desire to leave something behind, to prove that we existed and, by doing so, we never truly die. Becker calls these “Immortality Projects.”

I’m guilty of wanting a legacy. We celebrate the hell out of people’s legacy and, no doubt, many people leave behind quite amazing accomplishments of love, compassion, public service, innovation, celebrity, and art. But what if we don’t achieve everything on the bucket list? What if we don’t get the plaque on the wall, the record in the record books, or star on that TV special?

As Becker says, “The greatness in our lives comes not from our ’immorality project’ but with caring for something greater than ourselves.” (importability projects) sucks all intention inward… It breeds entitlement. IT CREATES THE NEED TO FEEL GREAT.

Because, if we aren’t great, why would a world that whole-heartedly celebrates greatness accept us, right? This is one of the most tragic thoughts a human being can have. I know, I struggle with it almost every day.

It seems the Stoics didn’t buy into the whole legacy thing (or at least they tried very hard to fight against that desire). Marcus Aurelius once said, “Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses.” This means that the longest life and the shortest life amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession.

So what do we do with that information?

Stop trying to achieve things? Of course not. It’s important to follow our passions, for it is the passion itself that provides the joy in our life – not the result. And, be in the moment in whatever, or whomever, you choose to spend your precious moments with.

Eckhart Tolle said we need to “die before we die.” In other words, we need to kill the ego (that voice in our head – the same one that buys into the notion that we need to be great) in order to really live in the present – in order to live for something greater than ourselves.

We can be reminded of this simple fact by the passing of a loved one and we must honour and cherish the lesson.

Through death, the thing we need to celebrate is life! Death is the greatest reminder of the fragility and temporal nature of life and if for no other clear understanding, death actually gives meaning to life. We live, we die. But what if we forget to actually participate in the living?

This is how my friend, who understood better than most throughout his life-long illness, lived his life. He travelled. He had fun. He worked hard and he was a fantastic father. Death, for one who lives with a terminal illness and for one who does not, remains the same reality. We should not be afraid of that fact but embrace it.

In The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer, he asks (I’m paraphrasing): If a voice, whispered in your ear today, that at midnight tonight you’d take your last breath, what would you think? Can’t I have another week or two? And the voice would respond by saying: But you had 52 weeks this year…and many more before that. You quickly understand the point. What would be done in that extra week that could not be done each and every week in your life? You would be present with your family and loved ones; you would speak your truth; you would be kind to each passerby; and all that “stuff” bothering you, at work or elsewhere, would seem insignificant and just disappear.

Many of these contemplations have accompanied me through the past few years; however, this year I struck upon another layer. It is important to not ignore the reality of death. We will, undoubtedly, encounter death and experience bereavement in our lives.

How will we respond to Death?

As Jordan Peterson lays out in 12 Rules for Life:

“Everyone knows the story of Noah and the Ark: a flood is coming, Noah builds an ark and manages to save himself and his family. Jordan Peterson analyzes that story from a Jungian psychological perspective and explains that we are all Noah and that we’re all going to have to deal with a ‘flood’ at some point, whether that’s the death of a loved one or an illness or something equally brutal. At that point, we have a choice: to build an ark or to drown.”

Jordan Peterson

That ark is a mentality – an acceptance of our fated reality. In wake of death, our own Ark could be preparing ourselves to be strong for ourselves and the loved ones around us – someone will have to be. Preparing ourselves to accept the stages of grief, we must pass through the tragedy of death, instilling in us and others (if needed) the belief, as hard as it may seem at the time, that life is still worth living.

I have deeply struggled with this new meditation. Sometimes I catch myself thinking about having to give a eulogy at a loved one’s funeral and I actually cry. Oddly enough, this happened twice in one week while walking home from work. But once I moved past the tears, a beautiful joy filled my soul thinking of all the wonderful memories I’d had with those people. Of course, this is just an oversimplified example of the task one faces in this kind of situation, but it still helped.

Of course, I’ve accepted that none of what I’m saying, or whom I’m quoting, can breathe any real clarity into why or when death happens. Nor can it take away the sadness I and others have felt and will continue to feel when it happens. I also don’t expect to ever stumble upon those answers.

But like the experience above, these medications can often help remind me to quiet my mind just enough so I can be more present. It tells me to be strong and be patient; in my daughters calling me to take the time to play; in my wife’s eyes that say “love me well, love me deeply”; in the simplest and most monotonous of tasks reminding me to just enjoy them; and, when agitated about something that didn’t go my way, to say…“let it go.”

Be here now. This life is all you have.

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