“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)
Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
In some cultures, the knowledge of death signifies the end of childhood. I see the knowledge of death, as the beginning of life. Only when we know the temporary nature of our existence do we acknowledge (or at least develop the ability to acknowledge) how precious it truly is.
The knowledge that I won’t be able to do things forever is fantastic motivation to actually do all the things I want to do with my life now. I get myself to write my blog posts because I know that one day I won’t be able to clarify what I mean or say anything at all. Like how Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts and messages are solidified in their current state, never to be worked on again. I’m sure if he were alive today, there would be a couple of things he would change. But it helps to keep in mind that one day, I won’t be able to do any of the things I can do now because I’ll be dead.
But as for today…
I am not.
In celebration of that fact, I shall write my thoughts and make music. I shall make sure my energy is put to good use while I still have it, rather than just finding lifeless ways to burn it all. Dedicating my energy and attention to my works, not only gives me access to immortality, I could share my experience with others in hopes they can cultivate themselves to be better too.
I see my death as the day when my life is truly decided and it will be a culmination of all my decisions. That’s probably why it’s referred to as Judgement Day in religious contexts. All of our choices are set in stone and will be judged, not only by God but by all who lived with us and all who come after.
Right now, I have a say in how that goes and there will come a time when I won’t. And chances are when it arrives…
I won’t see it coming.
It gives me peace to know that there are things I can do that can take on lives of their own and impact people once I’m gone just like I can now while I am alive.
I think it’s so cool when I read books written by people who lived hundreds of years before me, and I can feel as if they’re still here gracing me with their company. We all have an opportunity to reach out to the people who will come after us and with the access to modern technology we can communicate more accurately than ever before. Back then, people captured their minds in books, but now we have so many different mediums that we can accurately capture more information, share it easily, and with a lower barrier to entry than ever before. We can capture ourselves in video and audio in a way that can perfectly capture who and what we are and share it with the world almost instantly.
“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.”Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)
Knowing I’m going to die makes me feel like I have to make my works NOW. This moment, right now, is my opportunity to create what kind of person I’m going to be for the people who will never know me personally. This is why I write about so many self-improvement topics and make music. Those are the things that have spoken to me on a deep level and I would love to share these things with others.
In my post Proclivity for Comfort and The Relationship with Ourselves Part 2, I mention how one of the tragedies of life is that we have to suffer to learn. I see my works as a way to help others learn the same lessons with less suffering. In a way, I’m trying to make my sacrifices worth it to others. Though my works, others can learn the things that made me strong without having to go through the same hell. But my works can only be created while I am alive, so today I must work on them so they can speak for me when I’m gone. Death is a powerful motivator.
One day we will lose it all, but today we haven’t so let’s make our time worthwhile.
I believe the knowledge of death is only powerful if we care about what the world will be like after we’re gone. If we don’t care, then we create a breeding ground for nihilism. We can be nihilistic, but we will lead a fruitless life that’s remembered horribly.
“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”Greek Proverb
Seeing death as motivation can seem insane, especially considering that human beings have a tendency to avoid and deny the thought of their own death. Robert Greene talks about this in-depth his ambitiously, but appropriately titled book The Laws of Human Nature, which is on My Must-Read Book List. He beautifully illustrates how humans naturally gravitate towards denying death, but when inevitably confronted with it, can turn it into something that fills our lives with a sense of purpose and urgency to actualize our intentions. He gives the message life by telling the story of American writer, Mary Flannery O’Connor.
When she was a young girl she was really close to her father. At the age of 10, she wrote a series of caricatures of her family titled “My Relitives.” Her family was shocked both by how they were portrayed and the cleverness of the little girl. Her father was especially impressed, showing it to visitors every chance he got. He saw a bright future in writing for his daughter. When she was 12, Mary discovered her father had a very serious illness (she later learned that is was lupus erythematosus), in which the body develops antibodies that attack healthy tissue. This resulted in him growing weaker and weaker until he finally died in 1941.
His death affected Mary deeply. She was too shocked to talk to anyone, but confined in her private journal. She would write about how “God has broken their complacency, like a bullet in the side.” Despite her anger with God, she was a devout Catholic and believed that everything happens for a reason. God must have a greater plan for her. Over time, she started to throw herself at her schoolwork and writing determined to bring her father’s predictions into reality. Mary was going to be a prolific writer, just like her father thought. She applied to the University of Iowa and enrolled in the famous Writer’s Workshop with a newer simpler name, Flannery O’Conner. She started writing short stories, which caught some attention, based on her experiences in the South.
Then tragedy strikes. In 1949, O’Conner got pretty sick. The doctors diagnosed her with a floating kidney. She gets surgery for it but she isn’t able to write her book because of her recovery time and strange pains developing in her arms. Another doctor assesses the pain in her arms and diagnoses her with rheumatoid arthritis. Along with the joint pains, she was also suffering from high fevers and had to be admitted into a hospital. She didn’t trust the doctors but didn’t have enough energy to argue with them either. The doctors give her massive amounts of cortisone to help with the pain and inflammation, but it prevented her from thinking clearly, made her hair fall out, and bloated her face. She also had to receive frequent blood transfusions. The times when her fever was highest, she would experience blindness and paralysis.
At this time O’Conner started to feel like she didn’t have much time left. Death was coming for her. So she ramped up her writer speed, as much as she possibly could. In the hospital, she finished her novel, Wise Blood, inspired by her many blood transfusions. It’s about a young man who thinks he has wise blood and doesn’t need any spiritual counsel. It details his fall into madness and murder.
After a few months in the hospital, O’Conner returned home hoping to recapture some familiarity. On a drive with her sister, O’Conner discovers that her mother, in cahoots with the doctors, lied to her about her rheumatoid arthritis and that she actually has lupus, the same disease her father died of.
With death staring her right in the face, she saw things differently. First, she was sad at the thought of all the books she has yet to write and all the places she will never see. She felt her world open up as she engaged with life outside of her hometown and it was heartbreaking to know that she was confined to her little room. She was destroyed from the idea that her father was wrong, that she would not be this prolific writer because her time was cut short.
But then she saw things clearly, for the first time. She saw that the most important things in her life were not where she lived, her friends, or even her family, but her writing. She told her mother that she was to have 2 or more hours every morning for writing and they are not to be interrupted for any reason. She focused all of her energy on her work. Writing with such vigor at home connected her more closely with her father. Being surrounded by the objects they were both surrounded by during her blissful years and feeling the pain he felt before he died made her connection to him even stronger. She began to write and write and write despite the pain. It was almost as if she was realizing the potential her father had seen in her as a little girl.
With the stakes higher than ever, O’Conner knew she had no time to waste. She realized with each passing day that she had less and less time than before. As a result, she threw herself even deeper into her work with more and more intensity. Writing allowed her to forget herself and rid her of the anxiety of her sickness.
Knowing about her death gave O’Conner an appreciation for time that I’ve never seen in anyone else. She took in as much as she could every minute as well as didn’t expect much from life. This new perspective gave her the ability to analyze her society in a deep way which inspired her next book. She basically says that if everyone could see what she has seen, that we all suffer and die and our time is short, then people would inevitably live differently. She says the blindness to this fact eats at our humanity and enhances our capacity for cruelty. (I think she’s so right.)
Since she was in her room most of the time, she was extremely lonely and used her characters to keep her company. She also didn’t want to be too intimate with people, since her time was coming to an end she didn’t want to have to say good-bye so soon.
O’Conner wrote with fervor until the day she died. She was buried next to her father. Pain or no pain she wrote with intensity and because of that, the world has been given an amazing writer until the end of time. The story of Flannery O’Conner is one I like to go back to whenever I feel like I’m losing perspective on life. Death gives us perspective and it can be the thing that gets our asses in gear. Ironically enough, it can be the thing that fills us with life.
The beautiful part is that we don’t have to actually be at death’s door to see life this way, all we have to do is take Flannery O’Conner’s story and see how it relates to us. In a sense, we are all already at death door, so we should take a note from Mary and use the knowledge of our impending death to fuel our works and restore our humanity.
In The Shortness of Life by Seneca, which is also on my Must-Read Book List, Seneca discusses how there is more life than time. So much more life that we actively try to find ways to burn it. This is most obvious when we’re bored. Boredom is the feeling when we’re existing more than we’re living. If life was so short, why would people spend so much effort trying to kill time?
Seneca argues that we only feel tired and unrested when we give ourselves to others. This could be in the form of giving your time, but it’s also deeper than that. He gives the example of the dinner party where a dinner guest asks what we do for a living. Someone who has a respectful career may say what they do with pride and how it brings them much satisfaction, but in fact, is withered down and exhausted. That person is not satisfied and unrested because all of the hours that they dedicate to that fancy career is time that is not for them. It is time given to the guest at the dinner party or to anyone they want approval from. The impressed look on the guest’s face when he replies with a fancy title is not for themselves, but for the one with the career. The sacrifices made for careers can easily become sacrifices made for impressing others, which is extremely unsatisfying.
It’s easy to dedicate ourselves to others, but in doing so we make life shorter and when death comes, we will be holding on so tight unable to let go.
It’s funny how seeing life as short, tends to give us this idea that we need to spend it better. I see Seneca’s approach as much more powerful – we have enough time if we were to give it to ourselves. When we only live for others, we lose ourselves and never truly feel rested.
Seneca says that people who say life moves quickly only believe so because they treat life as unimportant and easily replaceable. Because of this, it slips away from us.
From this perspective, life is about choices and how we choose to spend our life is on us.
Seneca also talks about how people are so willing to give their time, but not their money, and how backward that type of thinking is. Money can always be replenished, but time cannot. Meditating on death really nudges me to give someone my money rather than my time. I highly recommend that everyone read this book. It can do wonders for our perspective.
Occasionally, to force some perspective onto myself, I’ll think about the inevitable death of me and everyone I love. This neutralizes any shitty situation pretty quickly. To me, nothing is more upsetting than the destruction of me and everyone I love, but at the same time, it makes me so grateful for what I have now. Whatever painfully flawed moment that I’m dealing with in the present becomes an oasis in the middle of a desert when I’m present to THE END, so to speak.
Death is the fate we all share, no one can escape it. It helps us realize what is important. In the face of death, everything trivial melts away and we only see what matters. When it comes down to it, we have little to lose and a whole world to gain, so let’s embrace death and choose life. Choose to live at our highest intensity. Make bold choices. Decide for ourselves what our lives will be like. Nothing is decided until the very end, we are always in a state of rewriting and our story follows our trajectory. Death makes life matter now.
“the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.”Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)