A Short Reflection on Self-Awareness and Mortality

Thinking about our inevitable end helps us to learn what we really want out of life

A large part of self-awareness — the ability to know what we really want — is a bit odd in that one of the best ways to achieve it is to think not more but rather less about ourselves. When we step outside of our day-to-day selves we cut through noise and clutter and realign with what matters most. One of the most powerful ways to do this is also one of the most uncomfortable: reflecting on mortality. Yet grappling with the end of our literal self has a unique way of making clear what we want to do with it in the limited time we have. Reading a memoir or essay about death and dying helps us to figure out what we hope to get out of life and living. When we mindfully confront our inevitable end we pay more attention to what we want to do prior to it.

In her brave and beautiful book The Bright Hour, the late Nina Riggs writes, “Living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But living without a terminal disease is also like walking over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a little more.”

Books like Riggs’s help lift the fog for a bit.

Grappling with the end of our literal self has a unique way of making clear what we want to do with it in the limited time we have.

And while reading is so effective because the act commands our full attention, even just spending a minute or two regularly thinking about the fact that we’ll all die — some of us sooner than others — can also be helpful.

It sounds trite and cliche but it’s true: what makes life so valuable and worthwhile is the fact that it will end. If we don’t remind ourselves of this somewhat frequently it’s all too easy to get stuck going through the motions — which is no way to spend our limited time.

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Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine and the co-author of the book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.