If we acknowledge the inevitability of death we can live a fuller life in the present
Death is certain. We are humans and we are mortal. We are going to die. Today. Tomorrow. In a month. In a year. Or in a hundred years. It doesn’t matter. We are mortal. But, we live like we are going to live forever. We understand our mortality on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level. We feel invincible. We know that we will die eventually, just not any time soon. Death will happen, just not at the time or place we want. Even in times of war and terror, death is perceived to be further away than ever before.
Death is for old people; they live in a home for the aged. Death is for sick people; they live in a hospital. Death is for others, not for us. Such human behaviour of pushing thoughts of death away stems from a fear of death, which is the basis of Ernest Becker’s Terror-Management Theory (TMT). TMT is based on the idea that people do many, or all, of the things they do in order to oppress their fear of death. Becker stated, “human action is taken to ignore or avoid the anxiety generated by the inevitability of death.” (See the 2010 metareview or this University of Missouri resource for more about TMT.)
Newspapers are, of course, filled with death-related stories: deadly accidents, crashed planes, terror attacks, natural catastrophes and many others. We encounter death when old and sick relatives die. Yes, such deaths affect us as they’re tragic and often make us sad. And still, those deaths are ‘far away’ enough so they do not affect the perception of our own mortality. We still feel immortal. We are not going to die in the near future. That’s what we believe and we forget how close death really is.
Ryan Holiday states in his book The Obstacle Is the Way that we do not live like we are aware of our own impermanence: “Otherwise [if we were aware of our own mortality], we wouldn’t spend so much time obsessing over trivialities, or trying to become famous, make more money than we could ever spend in our lifetime, or make plans far off in the future. All of these are negated by death. All these assumptions presume that death won’t affect us, or at least, not when we don’t want it to. The paths of glory, Thomas Gray wrote, lead but to the grave.”
We come across death every day, but we are not aware of the fact that we ourselves could die at any moment. And when we encounter death, we push those thoughts away. Julie Beck puts it brilliantly in her article What Good is Thinking About Death?, “when death is in the front of your mind – when you pass by a cemetery, when someone you know is sick – the tendency… is to want to push those thoughts away. You might suppress the thoughts, distract yourself with something else, or comfort yourself with the idea that your death is a long way away, and anyway, you’re definitely going to go to the gym tomorrow.” So we live like we are going to live forever. And, here is the point: this is not true. That is what we need to be aware of. Such death-awareness has many benefits for everyday life, which is also what the ancient Stoics believed. William Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University, writes in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy that, “the Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be.”
Death-awareness gives a certain urgency and helps focus on the essential. You will die, and when you realise that, you won’t waste time on trivialities, but instead focus on the essentials. “Rather than the perfect selfie or the perfect salary, you might think about spending time with the people who matter to you, doing things that make you happy, and leaving your mark on society,” states psychotherapist Megan Bruneau. Life can be over soon. So do the things you really want to do. Feel the urgency. Do what you need to. This is not about hurrying through the days, but about doing the important things today rather than tomorrow, so you won’t need to regret anything when you die.
Death-awareness lets you live more in the moment. Research has shown that older people actually live more present-oriented lives and are much more aware about what they spend their time doing than their younger counterparts. The good thing is we don’t need to wait for our deathbeds to decide to live more present-oriented. You can start right now.
We are all part of a whole. We come and go. If we look at the big picture, we realise that we are almost nothing. I like how poet Joseph Brodsky put it: “…the most valuable lesson of your life is the lesson of your utter insignificance. It puts your existence into its proper perspective, and the more you learn about your own size, the more humble and the more compassionate you become; the more you’re charged with life, emotions, joys, fears, compassion.”
I know that we can’t live life like we’re going to die tomorrow, otherwise we couldn’t hold a normal job or live a structured life. However, death-awareness brings more life to our lives. Julie Beck states in her article, “Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.” E.M. Forster once wrote, “I don’t know if there’s really any salvation, but if we accept death, maybe we can just live.” Maybe we can just live.
We are going to die at some point in the future. Tomorrow, in six months, in 10 years or in 100 years. We don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is how we’re living right now. Death-awareness makes us live more. Life is not somewhere in the future where everything will be better. Life is right here and now. Because tomorrow we’ll be dead.
Life is now.
Memento Mori, my friend.
Image from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Stoicism
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