There are a lot of different views on death. Some believe that death is the next step in an eternal journey that didn’t start at an earthly birth. Others are convinced that birth is the beginning of life and death is the ultimate end. Beliefs between both ends of the spectrum are rich and varied. There’s no denying the fact that death marks and end to life as we know it, an end from which no one recovers.
Death is as final as it is unavoidable, and that scares us. Even those who consider themselves religious go to great lengths to avoid thinking about the finality of their own death. We may talk about other people dying – people distant, old, or diseased. But the fear of our own life ending creates enough anxiety that most people hardly stop to consider what it means. Listen friend: you are going to die. Even if you think the universe won’t notice your death, it means a lot.
We All Die
My father passed away over a decade ago. I’ll never, at least in this life, hear his voice, see his face, or feel his heavy hand on my shoulder again. He’ll never tease my son about a girlfriend or laugh at his own joke. We won’t go camping together again. He’ll never enjoy a bowl of ice cream again, watch another John Wayne western, or work in his garden. His life is over.
The same thing will happen to me someday – it will happen to everyone.
Most of us go about life unconsciously keeping those thoughts at bay. We eat, argue, compare on social media, binge a favorite show, sleep a little, and then do it all over again. We do it every day, day after day. Too many of us are living simply because of our habit of waking up each morning.
Death is Important
But what if we lived our lives differently? What if we kept the thought of our own death, the last event ever in this life, right at the forefront of our mind? In Moral Letters, Seneca wrote:
Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.101.7b-8a
In his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink talks about how powerful certain moments are, including Mondays, the 1st of the month or year, and birthdays. On November 15 of this year, I brushed up against death. “Wow. You’re lucky to be alive!” one of my doctors exclaimed, and then went on to describe how whoever ends up coding my insurance claim will be surprised that the paperwork doesn’t end with a note of my time of death. I’m dealing with some of the lingering effects of the situation and while at times I am frustrated with the turn my life suddenly took, I’m determined to make that day, November 15, 2019, a pivotal moment in my life.
When did I stop caring about social media? November 15, 2019. When did I decide to put down my phone every time one of my kids talked to me? November 15, 2019. When did I decide to stop caring about slow drivers, rude sales clerks, or neighbors with a messy yard? November 15, 2019. When did I decide to kiss my wife as often as I can? November 15, 2019. When did I decide to recommit to my religion? November 15, 2019.
It’s only been a couple of weeks and I’ve not been close to perfect. But remembering, as often possible, that this day or even this moment, could be my last has helped me to follow-through with my goals like never before. I enjoy food again. Buddhism teaches that we should constantly keep in mind the impermanence of life so that we can grow and reach our potential. I try harder, appreciating the fact that I’m alive now and might not be tomorrow.
When I finally die, a few people will mourn my passing. Then they’ll go to sleep sad, the earth will rotate and the sun will rise, and their lives will go on. The question is: do I want their lives to be markedly better because of me? And that’s why I decided to use November 15, 2019 as my turning point. It’s when I decided to face death, accept it, and make sure if I see death moments before it hits, I won’t wonder or regret. I’ll be able to feel confident that my time was well spent. I’ll know that I was, as William Ernest Henley writes in “Invictus,” “… the master of my fate, / … the captain of my soul.”