We live in a world that is painfully segregated. By age, by income, by politics, race, gender- you name it — we are reminded almost every day that there is an “us” and there is a “them”. I strongly believe that these are almost entirely artificial barriers to human relations. One place that removes all pretense of the “differentness” is on our deathbeds. One day, we will be there. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. Nothing says we are all human like the fact that we will all die one day.
So why is it, that the only thing that is inevitable in our lives is the one thing that we don’t talk about- death. Sure, some of you reading this are doctors or nurses who deal in the life and death every day. Or maybe you are a priest, pastor or rabbi who gets the front row seat in life’s big moments. Or maybe you just lost a loved one. Or maybe you just received the diagnosis you were fearing. But for most of us, in the day to day, we pretend, or forget, or ignore, that the day will come — maybe sooner, maybe later- when it will be our last.
Most of what I have learned about death I learned from my father, who died 29 years ago at the under-ripe age of 49. I learned it also from the babies I lost. I learned a little bit from the doctor some years ago who said my number was up- but he was wrong, for the moment. There have been plenty of funerals along the way- and, as is inevitable with age, the number of those engagements accelerate. But what really strikes me is that the segregation of our lives by age is largely to blame for our discomfort with the topic of death. In our world today, kids spend time with kids, millenials spend time with millenials, and so on and so on until the very old spend time with the very old- and only then do they get the constant reminder of the inevitability of death. I would assert this causes harm to all of us by creating an unnatural fear of the unknown.
How we think about death, in part, is driven by what we think happens when we die. Even if we think we know what comes next, I am quite certain that collectively we only understand a bit of it. Some of us can be more optimistic about the life beyond because of our religious beliefs, and that can be an enormous comfort. But no matter what you believe, death will happen. Can we get to the point where we truly are embracing life — and death — and that this causes us to live a better, more meaningful, life today?
The certainty — the categoric certainty- of death, I would posit, should make absolutely every person- atheist and believer alike- live a much better life while we are on this earth. It should also make believers of all persuasions consider the need to sober up (possibly literally and figuratively) about the state of their immortal soul. If you really, really, really believed that today was your last day on earth, would you be happy with the choice you made a about how you are spending it? I am not at all suggesting that we shouldn’t plan for the future, invest in what matters for the long run, or anything of the sort- in fact I would argue that leaving a legacy, for your family, friends, country and world is likely to be high on most people’s list of “time well spent” Exactly the opposite of the YOLO and FOMO cultures that sadly permeate the culture today- in reality YOLO encourages behavior that more often implies “I will live forever!”.
From my perspective the certainty of death is actually a gift. It forces us to consider the state of our life, and our soul. Rather than being lulled into a drifting and purposeless life- or the chasing of the superficial- our minds can be sharpened, if we let them.
Practically speaking, what can we do to begin to bring into focus the fact that we are all terminal — and be ok with it?
- Spend more time with people who are much, much older than you. My mother, who is a role model for me in so many ways, is 78 years old and a person who grabs life and lives it fully. One thing she does is volunteers to help “old people”- some of whom are 20 years her senior or more. She takes them to events and arranges speakers to come to them. Befriending these “old people” for my mother has been a huge blessing to her and has removed a lot of the concern about getting older- and beyond.
- If you have time, maybe volunteer in other ways. A friend of mine volunteers to watch children who were getting their chemo treatments, to allow their parents a needed break — to take a shower or a nap, or to just have a coffee. Most of the children she cares for die within a very short time of her meeting them. Depressing? I don’t know. For her it is a way of celebrating their lives while they are here and provides a context for her life that is uplifting. I am frankly not there yet — but I admire her leadership in this area.
- Really take time to think about how you are spending your time and your energy. Think about making relationships right where they need to. Think about what regrets you would have on your deathbed and set about to fix those things now while you have a chance. It seems to me that a lot of the reason people fear death is that they may be leaving behind some things that they feel are undone- so get them done!
- Talk about it. In finding people who aren’t afraid of death, you can maybe explore why that is the case- and perhaps find your own path to peace in this area.
We will all die. Today, if you are reading this, you have been given the gift of life and I would urge you not to squander it. Here’s hoping to see you on the other side!