How might we live in a way that renders our death bearable?
There are numerous observable patterns about the human condition. Patterns which make it easy for us to speculate on the outcome of any given situation. Specifically, as we age, the ways in which the human body begins to fail has become predictable. In fact, there is no bigger data set than that of the eventual break down and deterioration of the human machine. If you subtract the roughly 7.4 billion people who are alive right now, the earth has seen around 100.8 billion people die before us. And whether you like it or not, you and I will eventually be joining them.
Chances are that just in reading that you felt somewhat of a visceral negative reaction. Facing our own mortality is something western culture isn’t great with. The conundrum of what happens next is a problem that religions, cults and prophets have been trying to solve as far back as history has been recorded. And it’s no wonder, facing the pasture beyond what we know and understand can be unnerving. I wonder though, what might our lives be like if we changed the phrasing of the question from what happens next to what happens now?
The fact that everything we are and have will face erosion, doesn’t necessarily have to be completely fear inducing. There lies a certain freedom in the impermanence of it all. Because the beginning and the end is known, we have a great deal of mobility to move left or right in the meantime.
Because the question isn’t about whether or not we will die, the question then becomes, how might we live so fully alive that our inevitable death is rendered bearable? How might we make it so that our days now are so full of life that by the time death touches our broad shoulders with its brittle hands, we have an eternal smile knowing that the world is unequivocally and unarguably better for having had us in it? That we didn’t just leave our mark but did so on our own terms. That our presence was felt.
This, as opposed to the heavy hand of death that grips and jars most of us toward the end of our days. Instead of a march toward the slaughter, might we run, swim, jump, lift, climb, dance and wave our hands defiantly? Might our lives be a point of beauty that exists in rhythmic harmony with the surrounding world and might we recognize that the beauty is exemplified due to its impermanence? Lastly, might we love in a way that transcends the impermanence of it all?
Because after all, that’s what we all want right? To impact the world around us and the society that we’ve manufactured in some meaningful and lasting way? Isn’t that why the last thing we do on this earth is etch our names in stone? A final plea for permanence? Could it be that our plea is misplaced? Despite our intuition we kick and claw to make this life worth it by material alone and although our grasping leaves our hands empty in life, we do the same in death. Even the headstones that we pay our last pennies for eventually join the dust around them.
What’s more is that its not simply enough for most of us to be perceived as having mattered, but to actually feel in our hearts and our minds like we are making a measurable difference. A void that can only be filled by the way that you lived.
In many ways, the facade of achievement without substantial truth behind it leaves us feeling more empty than had we never done anything at all. It’s as if the human soul has a deep seated desire to feel significant in a tangible way that can only be attained through intangible matters. When we give off the feeling of significance without actually having it, such as the way many of us appear on social media, the accompanying emptiness can be depressing. In many cases our temporary spike in dopamine from a flood of “likes” leaves us just as quickly as it came. It’s as if despite the affirmation, we still have a desire to feel alive in the physical world. The one we were born and bred of.
In short we want to feel on some level that what we did with our time on this blue rock made some semblance of a difference to the others doing the same thing. That our vibration wasn't just lost in the ether but instead, echoed through the eons. And that’s an overwhelming thought. Because how do you leave your mark on something so vast in a way that anyone will see or notice? And how do you do so when you have to pay bills, run errands and keep up with endless mundane responsibilities?
How do you throw a rock into the ocean and try to compete with the waves?
I don’t think you do. I think you figure out how to be fully present and relish the opportunity to be standing by the magnificence of the ocean at all. I think that’s really all we have.
You have to take a step back and appreciate your own life before you can ever hope to impact another’s. So much of what we do is on cruise control that it’s not a wonder when we finally look up and ask ourselves, where all of the time went once we reach the end of the highway.
There are activities which we engage in life that hint at eternity. We fall in love, we procreate, we get married and we take up religion. These are all the low hanging fruit of the soul that longs for anything transcendent of the physical world. For the most part they’re available to us all and so they have been built into our society as cultural norms. Things of a phenomenological kind that improve the quality of our lives daily.
And then there are the physical aspects of life that remind us we are fully alive, yet we tend to avoid. The moment we plunge into cold water, the nerves we feel before public speaking, the exhaustion we feel from staying up way to late connecting with someone on a level deeper than pleasantries.
Maybe instead of avoiding those moments, those are the times we should take stock. We should pause and relish the discomfort because it’s more than just discomfort. It’s an indication that we’re still alive and so for now, we’re still in the fight.
There is a moment when your body reacts to immersion in ice cold water. Your senses come alive in an effort to cope. Every cell in your body, which was lying dormant, maybe for years, is suddenly buzzing with vitality. Breath that you once took for granted is now choppy and shallow, as your lungs tear at the seams for more oxygen. A heart that once beat autonomously becomes elevated as it begins to shunt blood to your extremities in an effort to keep your core temperature warm.
You will adjust and feel warmer after a minute or two but that’s only if the water is still and you don’t move around too much either. The second you shift your leg or move your arms, the thermo pockets against your skin will be disrupted and you’ll feel the cold once again, clashing with the homeostatic temperature of your body. You might curse out loud, you might kick and fight to get out of the water but one thing you will know is that in that moment, is that you are indisputably alive.
Just because every minute brings us closer to the end doesn’t mean that every breath isn’t an opportunity for a moment to be savored in the meantime. Time passes but moments are etched into our soul in a significant way.
The way that we carry ourselves, the things we give our time and attention too and the way we live will say one of two things about our time here. We either happened to life or it happened to us. You will have spent your time on offense or defense. If the former is true, you stand a chance at doing the whole thing right.
And at the end of the day, that’s all that I want for you. To fight every day so that when it’s over, your legacy is one of advancement and defiance. My hope is that whatever it is that you want in this life, you find it and that your passion for that thing burns so deeply that you are willing to die for its attainment. Because passion that deep is the only thing with the power to make forward progress despite a known ending, in the least bit worth it.
They should say about you that regardless of the setbacks and the obstacles, you kept progressing. That you stood while others knelt and set sail while others clung to the safety of the shore. That you were love amidst heartbreak, light amidst the dark and music amidst silence. And despite the limited number of your days, you lived a dozen lifetimes with the one you were given. That you didn’t shy away from activities, conversations and moments of discomfort because everything you did was a celebratory act of that very moment.