“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.”
- Steve Jobs
One of my coaching clients brought to the table his fears of death following the current spikes in coronavirus cases where he lives. This made me reflect whether mortality is a motivational, rather than a fearful, force that enlivens us?
The pandemic news exposed all of us to the one reality that we try to deny: we all are mortal. We are all connected through this common fate. The uncertainty about life and death of our beloved ones during the current pandemic made us confront mortality in a way that many were not used to for years. As the only creature aware of our own finite life, many started to search for spiritual meaning for life to diminish the anxiety about death.
The current pandemic made us realize that we live in a society that equates any discussion about death with suicidal thoughts. The word “death” became too foreign to our daily vocabulary even though it is the only reality that awaits us. Until the recent past, death was a normal event in daily life. Community, religious and spiritual gatherings made this reality visible rather than something that happens mainly in hospices and hospitals and behind white curtains. People were exposed to actual funeral services at younger ages. It is not uncommon now to meet adults who were protected from seeing a funeral until the late teenage years. This view that further supported by technological advances that made us think we can defy death and live for eternity. Our main exposure to death is mainly through cartoon episodes and video games where the hero is resurrected from death and has a second chance to live! We learned how to invent ways to tame the anxiety of death through endless entertainment options. Our avoidance of death resulted in a societal denial of the one common fate that unites us.
Our avoidance of reflecting on death in daily life made us unprepared to face unexpected – and sometimes unjust – realities like the painful end of a relationship or chronic illness. In our culture, we learned to resort to distractions as ways to numb the pain. This turns into a cyclical process of hedonic pleasure to alleviate daily and anxiety. Ironically, this does nothing but exaggerate our sense of “fear of living.”
The reality remains: we cannot fool mortality. And the ultimate motivator for a living may be the one thing that unites us: our mortality. Perhaps the best way for a living is to reflect closely on it?
We forgot that mortality enlivens us. Mortality equalizes us. It makes us more committed to work and relationships. It gives us the courage to face reality. It helps us accept life has been spring seasons and arid dry winter ones. It helps us avoid thinking delusionary about the future. It helps us stay connected and feel empathetic. It helps us not to take our relationships or work for granted. We never know when the last visit is to the beloved one makes us more attentive to the minutes that we spent with them as if they are the last minutes.
Facing our mortality helps us work with fierce determination and discipline. Knowing that everyone will die helps us stay connected and shake us out of mundane daily rituals and self-centered acts. We will realize our destiny and devote all our energy to it. Instead of us looking for new adventures and relationships that might bring us a presumptive joy that the current relationship does not offer, it helps us try to make the best of what we have.
Looking death squarely in the eyes helps us regain our balance after setbacks and makes us move beyond uncertainty into acting. Keeping death in mind helps us focus on what really matters and become mindful and appreciative of who we are, what we have and to be generous with both.
Reflecting about our own mortality makes us focus on the present moment. It makes us value every minute of life. It makes us appreciate that the time we have now could be the only time we have. We become more mindful of what we do. We suddenly enjoy what we do. Distractions become trivial compared to the intense pleasure we get from mindfully focusing on the present moment.
Conscious of our common fate, we embrace suffering rather than avoiding it. It helps us accept what we cannot control. We start to search for meaning rather than focusing on the problem. Disease, divorce, failures, and betrayals will be viewed as genuinely painful negative life events but also as opportunities to strive and thrive. Illness is as an opportunity to appreciate health. Failure is as an opportunity to appreciate what we have achieved so far. Betrayal is viewed as an opportunity to learn how to detect individuals with malicious intentions early on. At the core of this is acceptance of death as our final fate. It helps us accept life as it unfolds.
There is no life without death. The current pandemic brought live discussions and reflections about our mortality. As the pandemic rages, many became aware of our weaknesses and more empathetic to our fellow human (while a minority will continue to be self-centered). Thinking about our own and others vulnerability during the current pandemic made people think about the value of their life, relationships, and work. Our consciousness of death caused a paradoxical liberation from the unconscious fear of living. Thinking regularly about our mortality might give us the courage to take greater risks and cut ties with our habitual delusions of “tomorrow” as a timeless endeavor.
Every virtue lies between the vices of insufficiency and surplus. Too little of any virtue is sub-optimal, and so is too much. Too little kindness is selfishness; too much becomes self-martyrdom. Too little confidence makes you submissive; too much makes us egotistical. Too little authenticity makes you fake; too much have its cost than outweigh its vowed benefits.