I think it’s time we talk about death

I don’t usually think about death. It makes me uncomfortable. Imagining that exact moment when I slowly breathe in for the last time, and as I exhale the world goes dark… it makes me squeamish at best, and tips me towards a panic attack at worst.

So, when I woke up the other day and death was on my mind, I knew it was going to be a rough start to the day. I was in that state between waking and sleeping, when time is a fluid thing — dreams, and memories, and visions for the future all melt together in a patchwork of hazy consciousness.

So when a vision of death showed up, it was every bit as real and present as my vision of pillows. My mind simulated the experience of death: perceptions slowly fading, the dawning realization that it is over, and that in the next moment, my life and my consciousness as I know them will end. At that moment, there is nothing else I can do: no more words, no plans, no second chances to do something for the people I love, no more walks by the river or eating dumplings or laughing with friends. And then, suddenly, blackness.

As I said, I don’t normally consider my own mortality. Most people I know don’t either, at least not out loud, even though my friend group tends to be of the philosophical and share-all-the-things type. I realized that my generation — and perhaps our society at large — does not talk about death, not really. Some passing references in a religious ceremony perhaps. But rarely a deep consideration. We don’t even talk about death very much at funerals; we talk about “life” and “afterlife” instead.

Van Gogh, Wheat Field. Wikimedia

Which is strange, because death is the only certain thing about life. It is quite literally the only thing we can be sure is going to happen.

Which I was fully aware of that morning, naked in bed, spinning through an existential crisis, feeling helpless and alone and terrified, with death more present and inevitable than my plans for breakfast.

Eventually, I ascended through levels of wakefulness, and the world stopped spinning. Pillows and breakfast became the real thing, and the closeness of death faded, at least a little. Yet the memory of that closeness remains.

I think, actually, that death showed up that morning as a guardian: a guardian against living an indifferent, colorless life. A guardian against settling, against mediocrity, against letting myself off the hook with the thought that, well, it doesn’t really matter anyway.

Because, actually, it does matter. What we do matters a whole lot, because death is on its way. We have a tiny speck of existence in which to do things, and so what we do, and how we do it, and who we’re being while we do it, actually matters a lot — it mattered 10 minutes ago, it matters now, it will matter tomorrow.

Which is a perspective that you only get when you factor in death. Without death, our time is infinite, and so it doesn’t really matter what we do with it. We can give it away carelessly, because there’s always more of it. It doesn’t matter if we spend our time working on things we don’t really believe in, or being slightly dissatisfied with life, or never taking the leap for the things we really care about.

Yesterday, I realized that I was living like this isn’t my real life. Like my real life is going to happen out there in the future, after I’ve built this company, and acquired a different set of skills, and earned this much money, and had these experiences… then I’m going to have my real life.

And the truth is, that it doesn’t get any more real than this. Life is made up entirely of “nows”; a long string of nows, leading through an uncertain future to a certain end. That is all we get, our only guarantee in the universe.

I’m going to die. We’re all going to die. Before we do, let’s live like it matters.

Like what you read? Give Bjorn Cooley a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.