As I’m starting to write this article, I’m on my way to my grandma of 95 years old. A tough intelligent woman, but dementing over the last few years. It’s like she has random blackouts, and starts the same conversations anew every few minutes. She is smart enough to keep up appearances for 20 minutes, and every now and then we can keep a consistent story up.
But the illusion breaks too often.
In a way, she has partially already left this world. And she will continue to slowly leave until something finally breaks. As my grams and I discussed, it’s tragic that if you're healthy, life ends with such a whimper.
These are her last years - and I find it sad, sobering, and endearing to visit her. But it also enlightens me.
It is a similar realization I have at funerals. At those moments you are confronted with (your) mortality. Death puts everything back in perspective.
You, me - everybody - will one day look at the bottom of flowers. Death is everybody's finish line. The construct you stop functioning. The candle of your consciousness is snuffed out.
We all know this on a fundamental level. But we often hide from this reality. Distracting ourselves in mundane entertainment, work, or higher causes. We distract ourselves instead of living life to the fullest with death as our partner.
By confronting your inevitable deadline, you can live a braver life. At least that is what I’d like to argue (aided by the work of philosophers and psychologists).
Death inspires, motivates, and clarifies.
Look behind. Remember you are mortal.
Obviously keeping death on your mind isn’t new. It’s always been part of human life. But it was more culturally embedded in classical times.
One of the most iconic examples I like is that of the Romans. After a victorious campaign, their generals would ride in a parade. The entire army and populace would adore and hail them as glorious demi-gods. But at the same time there would be a slave whispering in his ear;
“Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!”
[“Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!”]
This was to keep the hero of the day grounded and not overcome with hubris. Something our modern-day celebrities and politicians could use.
Another example is from the renaissance. Philosophers and artists would keep a skull on their desks. As a daily reminder of their mortality. Imagine starting work - with the thought: "I might die today. And my life will definitely end someday!"
But even in 2021, there are plenty of people who find ways to remind themselves of their mortality. For example by tattooing “memento mori” or the symbol of this maxim on themselves. Or even 'better' a polyhedral dice set made out of human bone.
The curse and blessing of lingering dread
It’s weird, our consciousness lets us be aware of ourselves, but also the limits of our lives. We have this inherent will to live, awareness and fear of death, and the knowledge that it is inevitable.
Conflicting drives and thoughts that cause stress and a disconnect. So to cope, we tend to not think too much about it.
When we're young we develop our first concept of death. But find ourselves grappling with it in different ways. By distracting ourselves or (unconsciously) trying to immortalize our meaning on earth. Like moving from parents as our emotional anchor, to religion and/or ideals.
Or looking for (symbols of) immortality. This could be faith in an afterlife or reincarnation. But it could also be heroic deeds, great achievements, or building a family with a legacy.
According to Ernest Becker, these behaviors derive from our need to control our death-anxiety. To evade or deny this terror. To resolve the conflict of knowing you’ll be dead one day and wanting to live.
In more recent research Jeff Greenberg and colleagues confirm this lingering unconscious anxiety. They have observed profound changes in behavior by becoming aware of it. Positive changes like living healthier, or being more open and communicative in relationships.
But people not coming to terms with it also use it to entrench themselves in worldviews that are "longer lasting". Radically opposing anyone that violates their culture. As a way of coping with their own limited life - by binding themselves with a way of life that will always be.
So the reaper is coming - now what?
So death keeps us busy, aware or not. Let’s choose to be aware of it! Remind yourself of it in a positive way. Because otherwise, you will unconsciously try to grapple with the anxiety.
As for embracing the inevitable gives you a reason to live more passionately in the now. Not despite but because your life will end. Whether it is tomorrow or it will fizzle out once your old. Living in the now, getting the most out of it, while you are still young(ish), healthy, and can work on what matters to you.
By embracing the inevitable you can reconsider your goals from a better perspective. What is important if you think about your finite life? What are your goals? Are they yours or societal implied?
Or reconsider your fears and anxieties. Don’t most doubts seem trivial compared to the end of your life? How important is it what people think of you? How important is it what the people you care about think of you?
You can stop worrying about all the daily drama that's thrown around. That doesn’t matter in the long run. If you got time to worry, you got time to cherish. Be grateful for all the small things that are also gone soon!
And think about what you want to leave behind. Is this life about your legacy? Or about leaving a better world than you found it? Or can you make this a better life and world for you and others?
What is stopping you from living your best life?
Just a few considerations that come to my mind. How about you? What happens if you embrace your end?
Looming death as an invitation to live
As I talk to my grandma she tells me that as long as she can still read, she can at least live a bit in her mind. But if one day she doesn’t wake up anymore, "it’s all good."
Because she has lived a full life! For her that included marrying the love of her life, building a family, studying English literature, and visiting countless theaters, operas and museums. Not forgetting the 1000s of books she loved reading.
Seeing the closing chapter of her life surely put my life back in perspective. Hope death can inspire you as well.
So what is your way to live your life to the fullest? How will you enjoy the heck out of it?