(April 1st, 1927 — February 27th, 2017)
One of the hardest parts about getting older is that loved ones do too.
For whatever reason, death is very counterintuitive. Even though we all know it’s going to happen, it still rocks us to our core to see Mom or Zach or Granddad die.
Along the way to living a long fruitful life, you see more friends and family die than you’ll ever experience for yourself.
Different people grieve and cope in different ways, but I think death is probably more difficult not necessarily due to the state change so much as how counterintuitive it is.
Would death consistently be this difficult to deal with if it were intuitive?
Although it takes literally all of your life to get there, the decline from coherence to incoherence happens at a rate that is magnitudes faster than any sane person could ever expect or be comfortable with.
The inflection point where your coherent mother or grandfather becomes incoherent seems to be so much harder to process than them actually being pronounced dead.
Similar to how we are horrible at intuitively comprehending the scale of exponential growth, we are equally horrible at comprehending the scale of exponential decay.
Up to this point, someone’s entire life of coherence was measured in units of decades. It only takes 1-3 days for someone to literally become completely incoherent, which is arguably harder to handle than dying itself.
Catheters have no dignity
Helping facilitate death is surprising because it feels more intrusive and embarrassing than emotional.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s still very emotional, but it almost feels guilty to self-reflect and acknowledge that you feel more embarrassed and confused than emotional.
For years you’ve done just fine putting on socks. Eventually, you realize that you can do without the socks and find shoes to easily slip on if the socks were taking too long to put on.
Things become different when it takes a literal hour of strenuous help to use the restroom when you can no longer use your own legs.
It’s difficult to know how to best help someone dying when they’re embarrassed for you to see what has for so long been a private matter, and you’re embarrassed to intrude.
Should you cry or entertain? Should you assist or give them privacy? Should you be optimistic or make amends?
I don’t have a good answer for what to do, but nobody else will be a better help for the job than you. It is the ultimate culmination of unconditional love, even though it feels very difficult and conditional at the time.
Death lacks dignity.
Getting over someone’s death is hard not necessarily because they’re now gone and you’re fraught with emotions, but because it takes so long to get back to the default pace of life that everyone else makes look so easy.
The default pace of life is usually unchecked because it is, well, the default.
This is easily the worst but best part about death and it contradicting your intuitions. Being so emotionally isolated and shaken to the core allows you to reflect for a moment and realize that you can choose for every day to be deliberate from now on.
It’s pretty fucking miserable to get back to treading water like what everybody else around you is doing now, but in the meantime you get a ripe, new perspective about a life worth living once you get your energy back.
After opening our eyes and breaking away from where the defaults in life would have taken us, we can choose to live deliberately better lives which is exactly what our ancestors would have wanted.
We can only hope that this is what happens with our children and grandchildren as well when we die. I wanted to discuss making the most of living in a more pragmatic way and less cliché way because that’s what any grandparent would ultimately want of their grandchild (and I’m trying to take that seriously).
Hopefully I can leave a note and joke with my children and grandchildren before I die saying, “Top that!”
After I finally came to terms with my mom’s death, I started a countdown timer on my phone until my 71st birthday — the average lifespan — in 2066 after hearing about a role model of mine who did the same but with pennies in a jar.
What shocked me was that if these were pennies, you’d really acknowledge how little time we have since they’d add up to $178.98! It definitely lit a fire under my ass.
I recently posted a chapter from Richard Hamming called You Get What You Measure and am actually fairly surprised about the results of literally measuring my life. I think Hamming’s observation was dead-on.
I’m getting what I’m measuring, and am actually genuinely surprised that I’m living what I think is a more fruitful life than I’ve ever lived before.
Towards the beginning of creating the countdown timer, I wondered whether I would live more in the moment or invest more in the future.
I realized that they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive.
I’ve noticed that I appreciate the finer details in the day-to-day and take more photos than I used to because those are all that I have to remember my mom by, and I wish I had more.
I’m more spontaneous and will opt to go on walks on the Flint River Trail with close friends, and our conversations make me feel so lucky to be around such intelligent, thoughtful, wise, fun friends.
Adversity phases me less than it used to because I’ve developed the grit knowing I’ll get through these minor bumps that won’t mean a whole lot over the next 50 years.
I’ve noticed that I do worse in school. But put a different way, I noticed that after acknowledging how little life we all have, that resulted in me taking way more important classes than ever before even though they’re difficult because they’ll pay off in the long term.
Far better to do worse (or good enough) at the most important subjects (while genuinely enjoying life) than great at unimportant ones (also at the potential cost of imbalance).
Youthful Ignorance and Ambition
When you’re young, you usually want to be very ambitious and solve world problems.
Young people are usually very ignorant of how hard some of the world’s problems are to solve.
However, young people are also very ignorant of how much they can grow and become capable of doing, so the two even out.
Don’t forget this, and realize that you have to have to have the confidence that you can do great work in order to do great work.
I really believe what Richard Hamming has said now more than ever. Doing great work is much more achievable than most people think.
Friends, Colleagues, and (Eventually) Your Spouse
When you look at the countdown timer, you can’t help but relentlessly prune bullshit out of your life.
One of the best parts about life is investing in great friendships and relationships.
It’s really humbling and nervewracking to surround yourself with such talented people, but that’s a great sign.
I liked this quote because I never even considered that your choice of spouse will be so important that they will either implicitly force you to get better literally every day, or they won’t.
“Well, it’s a very important question. You will move in the direction of the people that you associate with. So it’s important to associate with people that are better than yourself and actually the most important decision many of you will make, not all of you, will be the spouse you choose. And you really — you want to associate with people who are the kind of person you’d like to be. You’ll move in that direction. And the most important person by far in that respect is your spouse. I can’t overemphasize how important that is. And you’re right, the friends you have, they will form you as you go through life and make some good friends, keep them for the rest of your life, but have them be people that you admire as well as like.”
Last week, I was in New York for a conversation with Warren Buffett at Columbia University. The event, moderated by…www.gatesnotes.com
I’d also be remiss to say that reading is a great way to cheat the “you’re the average of your ten closest friends” rule.
Something Every Weekend
Doing new things — even if it’s for the sake of doing new things — does a great job at preventing you from calcifying in the ways that you think, and keeps life interesting and slows down time.
Might as well not delay too many actions otherwise you risk never doing them at all. Sometimes you can’t always act immediately, but identifying a path to eventually act upon something is a good start.
When a bunch of us from my class studied abroad, we traveled somewhere new every weekend (and then some). It’s a great way to make you feel adventurous (and uncomfortable), but always fulfilled.
It turns out that that is still a great way to live even if — actually, especially if — you’re in the United States.
At the end of life, I wonder if you would prefer your impact to be so meaningful that people don’t know where to even begin speaking about your contributions, or for them to point to specific things you’ve done.
I’m not sure how much it matters since we all get forgotten eventually given enough time.
But with regard to Granddad, I question if I could write them all down as cliché as that sounds. Even if I could, they could never be as articulate as his life deserved and it feels like they’d almost take away from the granularity of our memories.
That being said, I won’t forget his unparalleled qualities of humility, frugality, humor, and always unconditional love and his experiences like getting a full ride to MSU for Chemical Engineering only to be drafted before starting, becoming a secretary for the war, taking over and closing his father’s coal business after his dad’s early death, raising my dad and aunt, and countless others.
I would die happy to be a fraction as meaningful in the lives of others as he was to me.
Will always love and remember you, Buster.
— Little Eddie
P.S., I will probably never stop making sure to save other people’s food if they’re done and intend on throwing it out because of you.