Talking about death falls in the same category as income, politics, and religion; it’s a taboo. Where the last three are avoided not to stir up heated conversations or comparisons, the first is avoided because we don’t want to think about it. It makes us uncomfortable, scared,, and vulnerable. Yet, it is something that is around us every day. It’s even an essential part of life. Without death, there would be no life. Everything would be plastic. Modern life is becoming ever more plastic. The beauty of an aging person is hidden behind plastic surgery and makeup.
What drives someone to hide the beauty of their aging? Do they not see the beautiful story their wrinkles tell, or are they scared that death is coming closer day by day? On the matter of aging, James Allen wrote a lovely piece:
“On the faces of the aged, there are wrinkles made by sympathy; others by strong and pure thoughts; and others are carved by passion: who cannot distinguish them? With those who have lived righteously, age is calm, peaceful, and softly mellowed, like the setting sun. I have recently seen a philosopher on his deathbed. He was not old except in years. He died as sweetly and peacefully as he had lived.” This was written in 1902 in the timeless book “As a Man Thinketh” (I highly suggest getting a copy) when aging was still an accepted part of life.
But now it’s 2017 and times have changed.
The fading process
The process of life and death is fading away. While plastic surgery might be attractive on a superficial level, which is debatable in itself, the deeper layers of the individual are gone. The story is gone, the soul is gone. There’s nothing left but a one-dimensional canvas. Preservatives are added to our food to extend shelf life, and this also comes at a cost. The rotting process is a vital part of digestion, and the preservative hinders this process, making it harder for the body to get the nutrition in.
We buy plastic flowers, so we don’t have to go through the hassle of cutting the stems and setting up the flowers, only to see them slowly die within a week. They may look beautiful on a superficial level, but everything that makes a flower a flower isn’t there.
The denial of death, and therefore the denial of the cycle of life, is marching into every aspect of our life. What makes us so scared of dying? We don’t know much about it. Only that our bodies stop functioning and start decomposing, that’s it. Is this really what we are so scared of? Sometimes I think people are scared to die because they will lose everything they have collected their whole life. It must be. People sacrifice their health and vitality to gain wealth and material. There is no time to enjoy life. Hurry, hurry, hurry, go, go, go! There’s money to be made and bills to be paid!
The denial of death
Everything is momentary, but we act like it’s infinite. When things become infinite, they lose their beauty. Denying death is harming us in every way. We poison our bodies with bad food and cigarettes because we want to enjoy life. Relationships are taken for granted because our friends and family will always be there. We watch cat videos all day because there is always tomorrow. We don’t take those piano lessons to finally learn to play or hit the gym to get fit because we can always do that next week. But what if that’s no longer an option?
What would you do if you knew your friend had only one year left to live? You would make the best out of it and make every moment count. Deep down inside, we know this behavior is bad for us, but we neglect the fact we can die. It’s still so far away, so why give it any thought, right?
Being scared to die is being scared to live. Going from watching cat videos to being scared to live might seem like a huge leap, but it isn’t. When we realize our lives are only a millionth of a pixel in this crazy thing called time, it finally hits us: Life is short and precious, and we have to act now.
Worrying about death
On the other side of the spectrum are the ones that are very aware of death. So aware, they are scared shitless. They stay on the safe side of life. So safe, they forget to live. Life becomes about avoiding any danger and spontaneity. It becomes about knowing about all the bad things that go on in the world and how to stay as far away from it is possible. Maybe this strategy works to avoid the actual dangers and to live a safe life. Maybe, you are safe.
Or maybe, you have already died and are just a body walking around. Because, in the end, what is life really about? This is a question that is not easily answered, but I doubt it’s about staying save under your organic bedsheets in a sanitized bedroom, without any plants, because plants have germs and stuff you know.
Then some people managed to detox themselves to a point where they are almost free from any form of parasites, chemicals, and other creepy things, all in the pursuit of ultimate health. While this is admirable as achievement, the downside is they are unable to live a normal life in the world. Eating a Big Mac or being in the polluted air makes them so sick it can become life-threatening. Both examples are results that backfire on living a real life.
Once again, James Allen enlightens us with a truth bomb: “Thoughts of fear have been known to kill a man as speedily as a bullet, and they are continually killing thousands of people just as surely though less rapidly. The people who live in fear of disease are the people who get it. Anxiety quickly demoralizes the whole body, and lays it open to the entrance of disease”.
Legend has it that in the glory days of the Roman empire, a slave would ride along with a triumphing general on tour through the empire and would whisper in his ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te memento!” (Look behind you! You are only human). This was done to make sure the general would not feel elevated. Marcus Aurelius wrote in his book ‘Meditations‘ (once again, get a copy): “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
Learning to die is learning to live. When you are aware of your mortality, this will affect the choices you make. You become more aware, and this will help you get a firm grip on life.
The moment you get very sick or get in a terrible accident can be the day that will save your life. A lifetime smoker in denial of the disastrous health consequences will change his life in an instant the moment he hears he is diagnosed with lung cancer. The car crash survivor lying in the hospital bed pondering life realizes he has been doing everything wrong and decides to change his life dramatically if he recovers.
In an instant, you realize death is inevitable, and everything that you took for granted becomes of immense value. Now is the time to act whether it is some grand endeavor or something small like being more available for your kids.
The cycle of life
There’s a lot of things we don’t know about death, and that can be scary. But we all know about the cycle of life, and many of us appreciate and even enjoy it. The best example of this is mother nature. In spring, when the first warm sun rays hit the earth, we slowly see new life blooming from the deserted ground. The birds start chirping, and the world gets ready to escape the house for life outside. After spring, summer sets in, and everything is in a peak state.
Everything is beautiful, and it feels like the whole world is happy. Life is good. Then, the first leaves fall from the trees. Autumn is here, with all its amazing colors. We walk in the forest and smell the fragrance of life. Life is still good. After autumn, when most organisms are gone, winter sets in. The world stops for a moment, but not really. Winter is doing a big clean up and sets everything in place for a new cycle. Even in winter, life is good.
We have total confidence in the cycle of the seasons. We know that after death, life comes again. No one wonders in the winter if spring will return. No one wonders if the animals will return or if the sun will shine brightly again. We know, we trust the process and we respect the time that is needed. While this little story about the seasons doesn’t teach us anything about our own death, it puts things in perspective and can make our own process more acceptable.
We also have some form of the seasons in our lives; we just don’t know what happens when this cycle ends. But that’s what life is, a mystery. A mystery to be lived with spontaneity and confidence. There is no need to know what happens after our cycle. Maybe we start a new one, maybe this is it. Either way, it doesn’t really matter for the life we are living now.
When we realize death is inevitable, we also understand the time to just think about doing better is gone, it’s time to do better, to be better. What we can do today, we might not be able to do a year from now. Reminding ourselves, we will die might be the best thing to do to save our lives.
Photo credit: Ryan McGuire