What’s the worst that can happen? How Contemplating Death can make you Live Better.
Photo by Leonardo Yip
In these times of crisis and fear, I dream of holding a beautiful flame of light in amongst the chaos and wilderness of an untamed ocean of destruction. Sounds dramatic right? I guess it is. But we are living through dramatic times.
This is because we are currently facing a reality that until not long ago only belonged to faraway places and people. Suddenly the threat of losing everything, including income and people we love has become real and way too close. We cannot control who will be hit. It could even be us.
So what are our options?
We can freak out, panic and tear our hair out. But what will that accomplish? We can pretend nothing is happening and minimize other people’s reactions. But denial doesn’t work long term. Eventually, reality will hit us hard. Perhaps harder than everyone else who has already accepted it for what it is. So if we cannot prevent, prepare or control what will happen to us and we cannot run away from it what can we do?
The philosopher Seneca used to encourage his disciples to contemplate the bad things that could be happening to them. This was because he believed that misfortune would weigh more heavily on those who expected nothing but good fortune.
Another good reason to do so was to combat ‘hedonic adaptation’: this is the phenomenon that happens to us insatiable humans when we work hard to get what we want, believing it will make us happy, only to find when we get it that we are no longer happy and need something else. Rather than feeling satisfied we get bored and form new desires. The cycle is endless. If you fall into this pattern you will end up more dissatisfied than you were before fulfilling your desire.
Now, what has this to do with facing the worst within the current global crisis the world is facing? When the worst threatens to happen if we realize that the health, the abundance, the relationships, the beauty and ultimately the life we still have is and always was only on loan from Fate and Fortune, we can begin to appreciate and savor it a lot more.
The current crisis shatters the illusion of safety and immortality that we, as humans, love to believe in. We now face a choice as to how to use the realization that everything is temporary and impermanent. We can go crazy with fear and worry or we can fall in love with our present, with the possibilities it gives us, to appreciate what we do have in its fullness.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus used to urge his disciples to contemplate the loss of friends to death or to a falling out, and most of all, our own death. What changes when you think that each parting may be the last? Could that help you to really pause and reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and that therefore it is wonderful that we are alive today?
When we live every day as if it were our last we can begin to appreciate today. We can be thankful that we are still alive. Like children already do, we no longer take everything for granted. Catastrophes can help us blast us out of our jadedness.
Of course, nobody wants to lose their home, their partners or their life. But the silver lining of these events is that we can stop sleepwalking through life and be joyfully, thankfully alive. On the other hand, if you routinely visualize the worst happening but reflect on what you do have, you can begin to analyze your circumstances not in terms of what is missing but in terms of how much you already have and how much you would miss it if you were to lose it.
Don’t get me wrong, contemplating impermanence does not mean worrying about it. A geologist can be contemplating earthquakes without living in terror of being killed by one. The idea here is to embrace whatever life you happen to be living (yes, even if you are self-isolating right now!) and to extract every little bit of delight you can from it. Every time you do something think it could be the last time you do it. The challenge is to enjoy what you have without clinging to it!
So my invitation is: be satisfied with little and reflect on how lucky you are that the bad things that have already happened to others haven’t happened to you yet. If you can, help those less fortunate. If nothing else, it will make you feel more hopeful and it will enrich you and those you reach out to.
You cannot change what is happening. But you can choose how you react to it.