My flight landed and I ubered to the small hospital where my grandfather was dying. I entered the room to find my father and uncle at the side of an unrecognizable man connected to tubes and machines that were keeping him alive.
My father was convinced he was “holding on” until he had a chance to say goodbye to his grandson one last time. They left the room so I could have some time alone.
When speaking to someone who is about to die, beautiful things inside of us, feelings and ideas we tuck away in fear of rejection or awkwardness, find a way out. There is no way of knowing how lucid he was when I spoke to him, but I prefer to believe he comprehended everything I said.
My uncle and father returned to the room. Every so often the blood Grandpa was coughing up would begin to choke him and would need to be cleaned from the oxygen mask. There was nothing glorious or beautiful about it. He didn’t want to die. He was fighting with every breath. It was only tragic.
The nurse entered the room frequently and taught us how to monitor respirations. This would be the method in which we count the number of breaths per minute; a declining number that eventually reaches zero. In retrospect, this exercise gives the family a much-needed task to focus on as they wait for their loved one to die.
The last time I was in a hospital room counting numbers, I was anxiously anticipating the increased changes in dilation for the birth of my daughter. It’s easy to forget the similarities between birth and death because one is celebrated and remembered every year, our birthday, while the other is forgotten as quickly as possible, our deathday.
None of this felt real. Fortunately, my relationship with death has been infrequent, limited to the occasional funeral (which becomes less occasional with age), the heartbreaking eulogy on social media, or the string of unnatural deaths that fill up “news” feeds. But this man who I love was dying in front of me. It was really happening. I was unequipped.
After an excruciating twelve hours, my grandfather transitioned into the great beyond and became one of approximately 100 billion humans to have ever lived and died. The traditional rituals of mourning ensued. There were tears, the sharing of anecdotal memories, a religious burial, and then life returned to normal.
I tried to imagine how our ancestors viewed death. They must have had such keen awareness of the unlimited number of spontaneous events capable of their demise. Starvation. Raids. Disease. Even bad weather. The possibility of imminent danger was present all the time, but the close, intimate relationship our species once had with death is now separated by a multitude of deliberate distractions.
This digitally enhanced distance from our mortality has altered not just our relationship with death, but subsequently our relationship with life in its rawest, purest form. We value things equally based upon what they aren’t as much as what they are. It’s through comparison that we define things and build a value system around those definitions. So, if we spend our lives immersed in an escapist culture designed to distract us from death, how can we truly, sincerely value life?
Weeks went by and the grief slowly began to lift, like a deep stain, but I felt different. Something had changed. In the following months, I started the business I had been dreaming about. I became more cognizant of my health. I strived to become a more conscious partner and father. Witnessing death up close fostered a sense of urgency fueled by a sudden awareness of the finite boundaries of our time here.
More than anything else, I felt gratitude. If we take a moment to acknowledge how infinitesimal our time is here in comparison to the universe, how fortunate we are to have been born into this period of human civilization, then it is impossible to not feel gratitude. I became determined to preserve this evolved state of consciousness, but our contemporary culture is equally determined to distract us from reaching this conclusion, because if we do, then we can’t indulge in the trivialities that drive the mainstream economy.
The double-edged sword of technology has seemingly increased our longevity, our quantity of time, but what about the quality? Are we taking full advantage of this gift or has technology outpaced the evolution of our cultural consciousness? Can you imagine our ancestors witnessing millions of Americans sitting on sofas and staring at screens for hours at a time while having unparalleled access to human knowledge and the ability to spend time with loved ones without the looming fear of attack? Simply put, altruistic gratitude and complacency cannot live in the same soul.
A dose of mortality is a healthy form of medicine. It wakes us up from the false illusion that we have “spare time.” Ask anyone on their deathbed how fast their life has passed and it’s likely the answer will be something along the lines of “the blink of an eye.” We are the approximate 7% of humans who have ever been born and have yet to die. We are the alive, and we’re nothing but a blink.
If our civilization is to survive, we must shatter the false assumption that we have time to squabble or that someone else will figure out the challenges that face our communities, our cities, our nation, and our species. History will show that we have no excuses and that we are very close to squandering the greatest opportunity in the history of human existence.
Accept your death. Embrace it. And transform this fear into inspiration. Our survival hinges upon a radical paradigm shift in our collective consciousness. We never have as much time as we think we do. It is the acknowledgment of this truth, our shared commonality, the great equalizer, that can set us free and propel us into the future of our dreams.