How I use the threat of death to live better

I am not sick. I do not have a disease. I do not have any reason to think about my own death in the near future. I am not suicidal or depressed. But nearly every day, I have a moment when I’m suddenly, involuntarily imagining how I could die.

This started a long time ago when I was a teenager. It would usually happen when something good was happening to me — I’d be on a beautiful boat ride in the Atlantic Ocean, or at an incredible concert or on a perfect date in a restaurant. Then suddenly my brain would switch from pure joy to a scene, played out in detail, to how I would die at that moment or within a short amount of time. I’d imagine the boat sinking, the stage trussing crashing into the crowd, or a fire in the restaurant. I’d imagine my last moments, thinking how THIS was the last thing I was doing or THIS is where my life was at when I died.

This weird premonition that washes over me during good times in my life has only increased since I’ve become an entrepreneur, chasing my dreams. I’ll come from a meeting where I’ve secured a major partner or I’ll be watching the joy of people attending my event and suddenly I’m watching my own death play out in my head. When I turn a crazy idea into a glorious reality, inevitably the reverie of my demise will follow.

It’s also been more present since I’ve become a parent — especially since my kids have started asking about death. I’ve had to explain the death to them in a way that’s not terrifying, but also honest. (I recently compared our bodies to a banana peel that protects the sweet fruit before it is eaten and then goes into the compost to return to the earth. Kind of bizarre, but it worked.)

These thoughts of my own death don’t make me sad or anxious, nor do I get any kind of strange pleasure out of it. When I feel it coming, I let the daydream wash over me and then have a moment. The moment is what counts. It’s the moment when I am so incredibly grateful to be alive and doing what I’m doing. It’s the moment when I feel the fragility of life, the yin and yang and the interconnectedness of the universe. It is the moment when I know I’m on the right path.

It’s like David Bowie said, in reference to attempting a cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free”:

“If I feel a little unsafe where I’m going, then I’m going in the right direction. If I feel comfortable in where I’m going, then something is wrong.”

I only recently realized that this might not be ‘normal’. When I searched ‘imagining your own death’ online, the results are dark and mostly offer recommendations to seek help. But to me, that feeling of pushing your boundaries and allowing yourself to be present in moments of bliss as much as moments of fear is a natural high that makes for better living.

So many of us pretend like death isn’t a reality. It’s impossibly scary to think, “What would I do if today was my last day?” I’m not talking about making bucket lists. I’m suggesting it’s powerful to think: “What would they write about in my obituary?” or “What would it say on the news report about my final moments?” I’d like to think I’d leave a positive mark on this world and that when I die, I will be content with my efforts.

This does not mean I never have days when I stay in bed and just eat a bag of chips. But it certainly is a motivator, like an electric shock, that keeps me in check when it happens.

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