“Tell us we are dying and it becomes different. Tell us we are dying and we come alive.” – Steve Chandler
“Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” – Ernest Hemingway
Death. It’s unpleasant, it’s frightening, and it’s a topic that most of us try to avoid at all costs. But death, as Laurence Shames writes in Not Fade Away, the brilliant memoir of Peter Barton, “Death is the opponent that every single one of us will lose to.” We may not know exactly how, or when, or what happens afterwards, but at some point, our lives will end.
So rather than avoid the idea of death, let’s confront it. There’s great beauty in the fact that we are dying – because it means that we are alive.
The Fear and The Power of Death
It’s natural and healthy to fear death. Both as individuals and as a species we are hardwired to survive – just try to hold your breath for a few minutes and notice how your body screams for air. It’s a natural response which Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita calls ‘sei no yokubo,’ literally meaning, ‘craving for life.’1
Almost all of our fears can in some way be tied back to dying. Physical dangers or discomfort can arouse fear because they threaten the survival of our bodies. The fear of failure, or of not achieving fame or success, can be traced back to the desire for our memories to live on after our physical bodies are gone.
The fear of death is incredibly powerful, and it’s one of the main forces behind the world’s religions. Some of them provide comfort in death’s avoidance, promising salvation and eternal life if we believe and act in certain ways. Others embrace it, suggesting that by accepting our inherently impermanent nature we can avoid the suffering that comes with it.
Whatever your spiritual beliefs, it’s impossible to argue with the certainty that at some point, your present life will come to an end. You, in your current unique combination of body, mind, and spirit, are going to die. No amount of fear, avoidance, hope, or acceptance can change that truth. But rather than be overwhelmed by the fact that you are going to die, why not shift your focus instead to the fact that you are alive?
The Moment Between Past and Future
Over two thousand years ago the great Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius made an entry in his journal. Meditating on the mystery of life, he observed, “Our life is only a moment in eternity. Think and you will see that you have eternity behind you and before you, and between the two huge abysses, what difference does it make whether you live three days or three centuries?”
Some people might take Aurelius’ observation to mean that life has no significance when compared to eternity. However, I think he meant something different. I think that Aurelius was commenting on what an incredible gift it is to have any time at all. As Hemingway noted, even if all we have is two days, “then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion.”
With eternity stretching in all directions, we have the opportunity to experience the now. We are here, present, with the gift of awareness and the ability to choose what to do with that gift. “The present exists out of time,” remarked author Leo Tolstoy. “It is a tiny moment where two periods— the past and the future—meet. In the present you are always free to make your choice.”
Each day during my morning journal practice, I write, “Michael, this is the only moment you have.”2 It reminds me that the past is done and gone, and the future isn’t promised to anyone. It also helps me to be attentive to and take action here, now, in this place, rather than focusing on what might happen someday, sometime, somewhere else.3
Appreciating Our Impermanent Gift of Life
We are dying, which means we are alive. By appreciating that death will come, we can truly grasp the gift that is now, and all the tiny details that combine to make life so fascinating and magical. As my good friend and leading conservationist August Ritter once wrote, “Only until we realize that tonight’s sunset could be our last, will we be able to see its true beauty.”
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done up until this point. As the Amish Proverb states, “Don’t worry what you could do if you lived your life over; get busy with what’s left.” And it doesn’t matter how many years you have left. As former President Abraham Lincoln said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
Each new day brings the opportunity to wonder at the miracle of awareness. To invest as much life as we can into the time that we have. We all know how to do it, and if we’ve forgotten, there are plenty of role models to mimic. “Kids are always soaring,” noted Peter Barton, in the final years of an illness that was cutting his own life short. “For them, there’s no boundary between the down-to-earth and the heavenly. Mud is a miracle. Snow is pure chilled joy. A pile of leaves is a sacred altar. Why do we lose that feeling, that sense of wonder, for so much of our lives?”
Let’s return to that feeling, and to living with a child-like sense of wonder. Let’s treasure the gift of each moment.
We are all going to die. Let’s make sure that we really live.
In memoriam: Earlier this week the world lost an incredible inspiration and role model in Scott Dinsmore, the founder of Live Your Legend. Scott is a big part of why this site exists today. He dedicated himself to helping others live with more meaning and passion, and challenged them to change the world by doing work they love. Scott will be deeply missed by all those he impacted, and is the perfect example of someone who lived fully, deeply, with a lot of love, and with no regrets. Thank you, Scott.
- from Constructive Living, by David Reynolds [↩]
- this practice was inspired by Wayne Dyer [↩]
- after philosopher John Ruskin [↩]