How to authentically relate to death?
A few months ago I was encouraged to write about authenticity in relation to death. Initially, I felt intimidated to write about it. I mean, who am I to give guidance on how to deal with death authentically?
Then I remembered that sometimes the most personal is also the most general, and I think that applies exactly to our relationship with death. If we exclude everyone who has had near-death experiences or has supernatural powers, I think it's fair to say that we all have no idea what it's like to be dead. Although we will all die, we all have a very personal, individual relationship with death. Some of us find comfort in religious or spiritual concepts when it comes to making sense of death, others reject anything remotely related to any form of continuing consciousness after death. Given the already extensive range of colourful fantasies and preconceptions about what death is really like, I don't want to use this column to add any more. Instead, I want to talk about how we deal with death while we are still alive.
I recently read Michael A. Singer's classic book The Unbound Soul. In Chapter 17, Singer reflects on death and I would like to draw on his contributions today to examine our relationship to death. The question at stake in that chapter is: what would you do if you actually realised that you had a limited time to live?
Imagine that an angel comes down and tells you, “Straighten up your affairs. You will not awake from your sleep tonight. You’re coming to me.” Then you’d know that every person you see that day, you’d be seeing for the last time. How would you feel? How would you interact with them? Would you even bother with the little grudges and complaints you’ve been carrying around? How much love would you give the ones you love, knowing it would be the last time you’d get to be with them? Think about what it would be like if you lived with such consciousness like that every moment with everyone. Your life would be really different. You should contemplate this. Death is not a morbid thought. Death is the greatest teacher in all of life.
As a living organism we fear death more than anything. However, in comparison to other species, we humans fear death even in the absence of an immediate threat. Simply because we have the ability to think and fear death beyond immediate threat, it makes sense to me to invest some quality time into creating a healthy relationship to it. Otherwise, we could live a life of doom! Sadly, the association of death being a benevolent teacher or friend couldn’t be further away from our perceived truth. Generally speaking, death is not talked about, it is avoided by all means - at least that seems to be the case in the society I live in. But what if we took a moment to really and authentically look at the role of death in our lives? Isn't it true that sometimes the most unpleasant situation and thoughts have the greatest learning effect? Perhaps this also applies to our relationship with death and dying? So let's be brave and let’s talk about death. (For those who are just getting excited at the prospect of talking about Brad Pitt in his role of - peanut butter loving - Death in the movie Meet Joe Black, I have to disappoint you. That's not the subject I'll be talking about. Still, it's a great film. And yes, he looks very attractive in it).
The reality is this: While people can always remind you of the unimportance of things, death can teach you that very lesson by taking it all away in a few seconds. While people can teach you that men and women of all races are equal and that there is no difference between rich and poor, death instantly makes us all equal. Death teaches us that life time is limited and therefore if teaches us to live more authentically - in touch with what is important to us.
Imagine if you knew you were going to die in a week or a month. How would that change things? How would your priorities change? How would your thoughts change? Think honestly about what you would do with your last week? Maybe you would change a lot if you knew it was your last week. Maybe you would call a loved one you haven't spoken to in a long time? Maybe you wouldn't open the umbrella when it starts to rain, so that you can feel the rain on your skin one more time? Maybe you would get up early to see the sun rise behind the horizon one last time? If that is really what you would do with your last week, what do you do with the rest of your life? Do you treat it as valuable as your last week or do you treat it as less valuable because you have more of it available?
Let me underline this thought, which Singer also expresses in his book: Suppose you live your life without really realising that your life time is limited. Imagine that death comes to you and says, "Come on, it's time to go," and you reply, "No!". Are you kidding? You're supposed to give me a heads up or something so I can search the internet for some quick getaway adventures for my last week on earth. Surely, I'm supposed to get another week." You know what death would say to you? Death would say, "WTF, in the last year alone I've given you fifty-two weeks and look at all the other weeks I've given you. Why would you need another one? Good question, isn't it? Seriously, what have you done with all the hundreds of weeks in your life so far? Are you saying that you didn't pay attention to it because you didn't think it was important? That's a pretty startling statement.
Countless hours a week we try to do something justice, we dread, we hold back, we avoid, we miss out on, we ignore, we hold grudges and we procrastinate. Hours and hours. Now, ignorance and avoidance are not synonyms for authenticity. Openness and acceptance, on the other hand, are. So, to deal with death more authentically, we need to live more authentically. We have to accept that there is a limit to how long we can live. We have to accept that it can scare the hell out of us. We have to admit our fears, our confusion and our potential helplessness and powerlessness in the face of death. Whenever we close our eyes to the reality in which we find ourselves, fear will rule us inexorably. Only when we open our eyes and explore reality with curiosity can we truly understand, accept and grow. Only then can fear and impending terror transform into comfort and inner peace.
Singer writes in his book that a wise person who lives life with full awareness wouldn’t fear death, because such a person would live life more fully without compromising on their own well-being or playing games with it. Maybe here, the word ‘wise’ is interchangeable with ‘authentic’. What do you think? It sounds to me like this is exactly what Singer means. When we live authentically, we automatically bring more awareness and openness to what we do, how we relate to others and the world, and who we really are. It is this authentic openness and curiosity that allows for conversations about death and a deeper understanding of it, rather than avoiding it.
Dealing with death authentically means, first, admitting your fear of death. Secondly, take time to use the word 'death' and 'dead' as part of your vocabulary. Accept it. It is okay. Third, really take in the limitations of life. Fourth, you can freak out about that realisation if you need to. Fifth, realise that you are alive now. And sixth, enjoy!
At this point you might want to ask yourself, are you living authentically? The beauty of embracing death and living more authentically is that you don't really have to change your life, just how you live it. You may feel the need to change something, or you may simply want to do the things you do differently. To give a simple example. You have woken up hundreds of times to rush to work without opening the curtains or giving your body a good time to wake up, eat or drink. Acknowledging the immanence of death and living more authentically doesn't mean you have to quit your job. You may even love your work very much. But what you may want to change is the level of consciousness as you go about your daily experiences. In other words, you want to live each day as if it were intentional.
Maybe we were wrong about death after all. Maybe it doesn't take away the meaning of life. Maybe death even gives meaning to life. If we were to relate to death authentically, then could it be that death would no longer be our enemy, but our friend? I think that if we truly accept death as our friend, we’d realise how incredibly important this friendship is in our life. In fact, I believe that a friendship with death can have a powerful impact on all our other relationships - including our relationship with life and the choices we make in life. I believe that a relationship with death that is based on friendship rather than hostility and horror has a massive impact on how we are and live in every moment of every day.
And to end with Singer's words:
The wise realize that in the end, life belong so death. Death is the landlord and you are just the tenant. Feel grateful to death for giving you another day, another experience, and for creating scarcity that makes life so precious. If you do this, your life will no longer be yours to waste; it will be yours to appreciate.
...AND WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE?
What are your thoughts on death and how do you relate to your own mortality? Is there a part of you that tries to avoid thinking about it? If so, what is it that hurts? Can you describe it and understand it better? Can you even try to challenge that feeling and cultivate a relationship to it that serves you more?
Singer, M. A. (2007). The Untethered Soul. New Harbinger Publications/Noetic.