Long before you knew of your own identity, you were some of this:
And some of this:
These two weird things came together at some point, and you became this:
And after months of living in your mother’s womb, you were birthed into existence and became a resident of this world.
You were given this precious gift called life, which comes with a lot of great benefits. As you grew older, you became aware of what some of these benefits were.
For example, you discovered that food could be quite delicious.
You found out that watching awesome TV shows made you feel really good.
You became aware of the beauty of nature and its stunning qualities.
You also discovered that love came in many forms, but romantic love, in particular, felt quite nice.
But you also discovered aspects of life that were not pleasant.
You found out about heartbreak, and how painful that could feel.
You learned about global warming, and all the ways it could destroy this world.
You realized terrible TV shows exist, and how crappy they can make you feel while watching them.
And sadly, you also found out that some foods are dangerous, and can have you confined to the bathroom for a few days.
This range of experiences, comprised of feelings both good and bad, is just part of this existence that you have been gifted.
There are many ways people define the existence of a human life. Some say that it has to do with the vitality of your physical body and the presence of a working heart. Some say that it has nothing to do with the physical body and instead has everything to do with consciousness. Some even say that existence starts when you decide to believe in a certain religion or faith.
For me, I think that the existence of life has everything to do with this:
This is The List of Human Experience, and every one of us has our own version of it. I see it as the ledger of our individual existence — the master document that tracks the intake of every potential experience we can have at any given moment.
As complicated as it may seem, there are only two editors of this document.
Let’s start with the first one — her name is Life.
Life’s sole responsibility is to add to this list any new, plausible ranges of potential experiences. This is no easy task, as the list of items grows astronomically simply by being born into this world.
For example, if you were fortunate enough to be born without any major congenital disabilities and had access to all of your senses, Life would be really, really busy recording from the get-go, all the things you can do and all the ways you are capable of experiences those things.
Furthermore, if you were to expand any one of those items on the list, there would be a whole slew of categorized possibilities under each experience.
When you are an infant, Life is writing furiously — the developments in your life are happening so fast that the range of potential experiences expands exponentially.
Life can barely keep up with all the additions.
I think this has something to do with our innate adoration for children. The potential for what kids can become is limitless, and it reminds us of the times when we were constantly learning about new things, discovering in wonderment new facts about the world, and exponentially growing our own lists.
Each experience we have, whether good or bad, is recorded by Life into a list unique to every one of us. Depending on the lifestyle we lead, the pace of these additions can be faster or slower, and continue to occur well into adulthood.
However, this list doesn’t always consistently grow longer. At various points in our existence, events occur that require the removal of certain items from The List of Human Experience, either temporarily or permanently.
Here is where we can introduce the second editor of our list.
Say hi to Death.
When you ask a person what he or she fears most about existence, this guy is often the culprit.
Death’s sole responsibility as an editor is to remove the items written down by Life that are no longer applicable or possible. You can think of Life as the additive editor, and Death as the subtractive one.
When it comes to Death, we fear most that he will undo all the progress that Life has made—in one fell swoop.
We may not consciously realize it, but the presence of Death’s editing abilities guides much of what we do.
We schedule routine doctor appointments to ensure that Death is kept at bay.
We wear seat belts as an act of insurance against a possible visit from Death.
We exercise and adjust our eating habits so we can keep him away from Life’s work.
Many of the choices we make on a daily basis are an effort to keep Life focused on growing our list and to keep Death from doing any work at all.
But in reality, the very existence of Death also propels us to take on some of the most meaningful experiences that Life has to offer.
Being aware of the brevity of existence keeps us grounded in pursuing the goals that most presently matter to us.
Being mindful of our limited time in this world prevents us from uselessly spending our energy.
Understanding that one day will be the final day we see our families reminds us how truly precious our moments together are.
The reality is that Life and Death do not live in separate parts of your universe. The two are close roommates, sharing space in the residence of your life.
While this thought may be nice for some, it can be discomforting for others. Knowing of Death’s presence can motivate us to do great things, but many of us would prefer not to think about the fact that we could die at any moment. There’s something scary about the thought that, as editors of our List of Human Experience, Life writes with a pen and Death removes with a scythe.
But this, I think, is the great misconception of Death.
We tend to think of dying as a life-eliminating event, rather than as a life-editing process. Instead of focusing on its purpose as a subtractive tool necessary for growth, we see it as a definitive moment that ends everything.
But Death doesn’t work with a scythe.
He works with a different tool….
While Life is responsible for adding potential ranges of experiences to your list, she doesn’t have the ability to remove that which no longer serves you. This is where Death comes in. He is present at almost every stage, removing certain experiences and parts of yourself that were once so intricately tied to your identity.
Here are some questions to ponder:
How many of your friends from elementary school are still your friends? What would it be like if you were to hang out today with the high school version of yourself?
Does money have the same meaning to you now as it did when you first graduated college? Do relationships have the same meaning?
Are the things that were most important to you a few years ago important to you now? Are you even the same person today as you were yesterday?
When you ponder those questions, you quickly realize how much of your life has changed over time. It can feel as though you’re living a fundamentally new existence. These changes don’t happen because Life simply jots down new perspectives; they happen because Death actively removes the feelings that are no longer a part of you.
Perhaps the coolest thing about Life and Death is the active communication between them as they work together to create balance in the List of Human Experience. When Death erases a particular experience, he gives Life an opportunity to add a new perspective.
For example, this is what the communication between Life and Death might look like when you are ending an unhealthy relationship:
This careful interplay between Life and Death is what allows us to grow as people. Death takes away the parts of us that no longer fit, and Life adds valuable insight into what that loss means.
It can be difficult because we are inherently resistant to loss—especially when it comes to our personal qualities. We are obsessed with self-identity, attached to the notion that there are certain core qualities that make us who we are. We subscribe to the belief that these are defining qualities, that they are unchangeable.
A person’s “core identity” might look something like this:
What if you start noticing, as time goes on, that you no longer enjoy being with large groups of people? And what if you realize that when you are in a group, you are keeping to yourself more and would rather be back home? What if you become unsure of the direction your career is going? What would your friends and family think? What will you do then?
When the core tenets of your self-identity are threatened, your first instinct is to fight back and hold onto them at all costs. After all, you built your relationships and reputation on those tenets, so losing them might lead to aimless isolation.
This is where the reframing of Death is especially helpful.
When you are mindful of the close interaction between Life and Death, new feelings reveal themselves to be moments of pause and reflection. Death’s act of editing your identity is Life’s opportunity to bring forth novel perspectives.
If Death is removing your tendency to be well-liked, perhaps Life is telling you that it’s time for you to look inward and ask yourself the serious questions you’ve been ignoring. Or, conversely, if Death is hovering his eraser around your desire to be alone, perhaps Life is pushing you to meet with others, to share the thoughts that have been tumbling around in your head.
This constant addition and subtraction of experiences can keep us mindful existence is continually fluid. There is no permanent list of qualities that define who you are, so there is no reason to panic if you feel a shift occurring.
We all live multiple lives in one existence, and our sense of self dies repeatedly in the process. So when you feel some fundamental changes occurring within you (feeling disconnected from certain friends, being discontent with a job you’ve historically enjoyed, or questioning your faith, for example), don’t be too afraid.
That’s just Death doing some housekeeping so that Life has space on the list to make her revelations known.
That said, while Death has a great ability to dissipate the illusion of self-identity, not everything he does is so nice and rosy. His eraser has the power to remove what we really need to be removed, but other times he touches the items on our list that we desperately wish he wouldn’t.
He has the ability to hurt us deeply.
And this pain is worst when Death removes our loved ones.
There is no comforting way to bridge the emotional gap between a loved one’s existence and a loved one’s death. Even families who are fully aware that the passing of their loved one is imminent still cannot truly prepare themselves for when it actually happens.
This chasm between death as a concept and death in reality is one of the most difficult spaces we have to navigate. While the former can motivate us to live our lives fully, the latter can devastate us and introduce unmanageable levels of grief.
However, when I speak with people who have lost loved ones to Death, I get the sense that they can do what those who have not had that experience cannot. Given enough time, they are able to build a bridge over that chasm and reconcile the sad passing of their loved one with a visceral lesson of what it really means to live fully.
When my friends who have lost grandparents reflect on the time they spent with these wonderful men and women, they almost always mention some combination of feeling love, comfort, warmth, care, or kindness. It’s as if these emotions were packaged and given to them by their grandparents themselves, allowing my friends to access them whenever they need.
The texture of unconditional warmth remains with us well after its source is no longer here. And for those of us that have had the privilege to experience that comfort, the death of a loved one can act as a lasting reminder that we are able to provide these emotions to others as well.
While the passing of a loved one is difficult to bear, remember that Life is on the other side, patiently waiting to teach us what it all means. It is this very lesson that keeps us grounded in this ever-changing landscape of our collective existence.
While it can seem like a difficult thing to do, contemplating death in this manner actually teaches us what it means to live a fuller life. I think these are the key takeaways:
(1) Remember that Life and Death live as roommates. Death is not idly waiting for us at the end of our journeys. It is always with us in the lives we lead now. Being aware of this allows us to reflect on what really matters, and keeps us open to the new perspectives Life offers.
(2) Self-identity is impermanent, so embrace the changes as they come. Nothing is immune to Death’s eraser, so there is no point in desperately holding onto some illusory version of yourself. Loosening the grip you have on your identity can lessen the fear and anxiety that typically accompany the winds of change.
(3) The lessons of death can be learned now. You don’t need to wait until your List of Human Experience is blank to embrace the wisdom of dying. We have this moment only to work on what gives us meaning, to embrace this existence we’ve been gifted, and to tell the people we love most that we love them.
Death illuminates the fact that this very moment is all we really have in this life.
So let’s make the most of it.