We are all walking, talking, ticking time bombs. Now granted, our fuse usually stretches 70 years long, and although it has increased sharply in the last century, every living thing has an ‘expiry date’ from the day it emerges into this world. Expiry dates are largely arbitrary: determinable by genetics, time period in history, chance accidents, resources, environment and so on. Yet, independent of circumstantial privileges, we all have one.
Western society often dodges the subject of death, obfuscating an honest discussion of it. I can imagine why, since the facts surrounding death are unpleasant at best, like the uncomfortable realities of palliative care, degeneration of the mind and will, widowhood and solitude.
I submit, however, that a reasoned, philosophical stance about what death signifies for you is absolutely critical, despite its touchiness as a subject, for an enlightened perspective of your remaining time spent living. I’d categorize an honest meditation on death up there with other essential reflections most human beings share, like what makes one happy, constructing an identity, finding meaning, etc… Death is a foundational, inescapable part of the human condition, that every person must tango with at some point in their lives. The challenge, then, is to first come to grips with your death, and second, mend this acceptance into a more nuanced, healthier approach towards it.
Embracing the notion of death
Knowing I will one day perish is a difficult prescription to swallow. Fortunately, as with other personal struggles, it can be re-examined and reconstructed from a different, more positive angle. Keep in mind, this will be an overview of what my own mortality means for me—not a framework on coping with the death of others. The challenge all starts with…
Acceptance. An honest, personal examination of death has to start with complete and utter submission to its inevitability. Don’t take the word ‘acceptance’ lightly, for I’m not talking about the mere, momentary entertainment of the notion of non-existence. I’m referring to the complete, matter of fact, open-armed reception of death, characterized by the bone-chilling, harrowing visualization of ceasing to breathe, ceasing to experience, ceasing to exist. The stomach-churning idea that one day you will no longer know what it’s like to be, nor to feel. Imagining the cessation of your life is visceral, entirely uncomfortable, and may cause momentary anxiety, yet is critical for what comes next.
Only after playing around with notion of non-existence, am I finally free to cherish the beauty of its polarity: existence. This allows me to contrast every possible, experiential human characteristic with its complete opposite—what feeling is like compared to non-feeling; breathing with non-breathing; experiencing with non-experiencing. I can’t genuinely imagine what any of these opposites truly feel like (if I did, I wouldn’t be writing this), but it’s a helpful thought experiment. This kind of simulation consequently swarms me with gratitude for my ability to wield all these incredibly basic defining features of what it’s like to be alive. I get hit with a flock of messenger pigeons, sent by Death, who rudely fly in through the open terrace window, which have ‘NOTHING IS PERMANENT,’ ‘EXPLORE YOUR PASSIONS’ and every other possible feel-good mantra super glued to their nimble little legs. Eventually, they settle down beside me on the living room couch and I kind of start enjoying their company and embracing their cute little messages. Through the realistic acceptance and personal exploration of my inevitable death, I become open and free to enjoy the fruits of conscious experience.
Hearing or reading the stories of people who understand it better than me. Many cancer survivors and people who overcame abject poverty are imbued with a permeating force to appreciate life after the fact. Such people were in constant battles for survival for a long period of time—once the respective burden was relieved, the stark contrast between liberty and agony enabled a greater degree of appreciation for ordinary living. Struggles build character. Now, I would never recommend you to purposely endanger yourself just for the sake of gaining an appreciation for life and your fragility. That would be madness. The key, then, is to mindfully listen to the stories of those who have experiential closeness to death and learn from their experiences.
I was fortunate to talk with a couple of palliative care nurses who opened up to me about the unfortunate (yet common) regrets of the dying. Their stories pointed to more or less the same recurring themes: overworking, inauthenticity, undervaluing friendship and fear of risk taking. If you’re interested, a quick ‘regrets of the dying’ Google search will yield a plethora of online articles. For a lengthier, more philosophical take on death, I suggest Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, full of useful aphorisms about death and what it means to be a good human. If a more contemporary, personalized take is your style I recommend Tuesdays with Morrie (based on a true story), which promises a hard-hitting narrative about human connection and setting the right priorities in life.
Death is an easier pill to swallow once you accept the cosmic imperative to live better. The universe will continue expanding, black holes will continue to form, and planets will continue to rotate with complete indifference as to whether you’re around or not. The cosmic imperative is the hydrogen bomb in your arsenal against self-defeating thoughts, depression and anxiety. It offers, perhaps, one ingredient of the antidote to one of the most unsettling, yet inevitable moments that we all must come to terms with. I won’t go into any more detail about the cosmic imperative here; feel free to click the link above to learn more about what it is and what it means to me.
Accepting impermanence. One of the most brutal, yet inescapable characteristics of our universe is the impermanence of everything. Every organism, sensation and entity you’ve come in contact with will one day cease to exist. Even our favourite, seemingly-immortal star, the sun, won’t be around forever (don’t worry, it’ll keep burning for another 5 billion years). Coming to peace with impermanence comes easily to us, predictably and expectedly, when watching a rose wither away. It’s quite another thing entirely to embrace human impermanence.
I find that placing myself within the very same ‘playing field’ as every other organism, species, and being frees me from the egoistic mental trap that I’m invincible. I am as delicate as a housefly, as finite as a poem, as impermanent as you. I assimilate death as an ordinary feature of existence, as normal and routine as taxes sleep. An intimate understanding of impermanence is precisely why Buddhist thought appeals to me, it being a fundamental tenet of its ideology and practice. I suggest attending a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat to really solidify the idea of impermanence in your head. The retreat teaches complete equanimity with your thoughts, surroundings, and ultimately, death.
What death means to me
Once you surpass the previous hurdle of ‘embracing’ (or coping with the idea of) your death, the next natural step is to sublimate it, appropriately, into a more benign conception. The idea here is to breathe life into an otherwise dreadful topic, adorning it with a renewed air of personal significance, where hopefully you can extract something useful from it. We’re looking to reframe the default associations with death—fear, dread, sorrow—to something more positive and uplifting. My takeaways from understanding my eventual death include:
An impetus to live in the present. As stereotypical as it sounds, it’s completely true: death can strike at any time, without prior warning. We’re incredibly fragile beings; one wrong push in the wrong direction could leave us in a coma, while one infectious disease could shut down our internal circuitry permanently. I could be diagnosed with a terminal illness next year or get hit by a swerving car next week. You never know. The richer and more privileged among us are better shielded from death with higher quality medicine, nutrition and safer environments, but nevertheless are still susceptible to tragedy. Nobody’s future existence is guaranteed. This is why it’s so important to do one’s utmost to live in the present moment.
Using it as a decision-making and prioritization tool. I suggest spending some quality time creating a list of personal goals you want to reach, fears you want to overcome, and experiences you want to have before your time comes. Be accountable, come back to the list every few months and add/take away from it regularly. I find that a quick, jolting reminder about my mortality at practically any time gives me the equivalent self-talk of “oh, right, never mind, I probably should make the extra effort to accomplish that goal that I complacently gave up on last week.” It forces me to complete those delayed gratification goals that matter to me. Death is the magical potion that forces me to overcome any self-doubt about whether a decision is truly important to me or not, and whether it sits comfortable within fits my trajectory of goals I want to accomplish before I die.
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
― Mark Twain
Balancing consumption against production. Death forces me to evaluate the classic ‘production versus consumption’ conundrum of how to best spend my time. In other words, how much work should I put into producing things or creating value for the benefit of others versus consuming the work that others have produced? Writing a book, filming a movie or inventing a game all fall under ‘production,’ while reading a book, watching a movie or playing a game constitute ‘consumption.’ I’ve started valuing ‘producing’ more recently, finding that accomplishing delayed gratification goals, though harder to achieve, is incredibly more fulfilling and produces lasting contentment for me. Death forces me to err on the side of producing more frequently because realizing I don’t have an unlimited timeline to leave an impact on those around me is a potent motivator. The longer I spend blindly consuming, the less effective I can be at producing things of lasting value.
Pondering heredity. Independent of cultural pressures, societal expectations or parental advice, the decision to bring a child into this world is perhaps the most important personal decisions one may undertake in their lives. Stripped from all the former distractions, reproduction really comes down to biological urges—passing on our genes—devised by nature as a clever way of cheating death. Death forces me to explore some hard-hitting, deeply personal questions about legacy. Is continuing my line of heritage important to me? Do I want to bring a child into this world? The only true way to immortalize yourself is to pass on your genetics—how important is this for me? I’m still firmly undecided on the issue, but it’s only because of my morality that such questions are even important in the first place. So thanks, death.
Death implores the ultimate acquiescence to the unknown and immaterial. The truth is that–no matter which scientific literature you read, religious book you believe in, or shamanic leader you follow, there is no credible authority on what happens after you die. And this is deeply unsettling, given that we’re hardwired to control our environment, look for answers and explain the world we perceive in a comprehensible manner. It’s kind of what this website is all about. Given our (perhaps permanent) ignorance on the post-death experience, the only reasonable course of action is to cede our firm grip that tries to control it, urge to fight it or endeavour to prevent it. There are a lot of sensationalized articles these days, hyping crazy biohacking advances that promise to extend our life forever. Forget it. I accept death, willingly, free from any presuppositions or worldly narratives that ‘experts’ or ‘tradition’ have latched onto it, and instead acquiesce to it, fully, with steadfast assurance that it’s probably around for a good reason, and whatever needs to happens will happen.
The ultimate litmus test of a life well-lived. There is no universal organization, statistical metric or any other objective way to nail down what constitutes a ‘good life.’ I propose, however, that one reliable test does actually exist, the problem being that it’s only accessible at the final years/weeks/seconds of your life. I envision that how you feel in old age before you pass, looking back upon your life, is as good of a test as any about a life well lived. Old age allows more time than ever to think introspectively and reflect profoundly, bringing forth an ultimate clarity, about how satisfying your life was. Did your abundant years on this planet provide you with what you sought? Will you feel proud of the culmination of your experiences, or regretful about inaction? Ashamed and defeated? Or beaming with pride? These questions perhaps don’t feel pressing right now or carry any real weight to them, which is fine. But do keep in mind that you have the most important interview of your life coming up, where the interviewer is death and your resume is your life. Act wisely.
Death is the final frontier to be reached, the greatest unifier of all humankind. We like to pretend that we’re immortal (we’re not) and so different from one another (also not true). We are so commonly wrapped up in daily trivialities, losing sight of the fleeting seconds of existence. No matter how dominant, powerful or successful, we must all succumb to death. Our stories, diverse though they are, already have the last page prewritten for us.
Death is not pretty. Death is not ugly. Death just is. What ‘is’ means is entirely in your hands. The second that the light bulb of consciousness switched on in your head was the moment that bulb started slowly dimming with age. No light bulb burns forever. I just hope when it’s time for mine to burn out, I’ll be content with all the light it has shined over the years, both unto myself and others.
So, what’s your relationship with death like?