By Caroline Knight
Facing one’s own death is an abstract concept. How do you begin? It doesn't mean standing at the edge of a cliff, risking a fatal fall. It simply means to consider it. Think about it for more than two minutes, and don’t shrug the idea off.
Many people spend their lives in a kind of extended procrastination. Staring at TV screens watching either the pretend lives of others, or contrived 'reality' shows that are far from real, while real, valuable time slips away.
The notion of ‘living in the present moment’ may seem like a bit of a cliché these days, but that doesn’t make it any less valid a habit to cultivate. The same goes for ‘time is an illusion.’ That it may be, but it is also a tool; a method for you to orient yourself in terms of values. Being late for your meeting becomes a ridiculous concern when you consider your time alive as a whole unit.
It takes a shock to bring home our mortality, usually. When someone you love dies, it temporarily registers that you too are mortal; it brings your values into focus. It is interesting how many people begin to speak of making changes; the grief also opening their minds to previously unconsidered possibilities, such as the afterlife.
Suffering is an unwanted gift
Suffering is a useful tool - life’s most effective teacher. Some say that life is merely preparation for death. In life, we seem to go through cycles of happiness and pain, interspersed with the mundane, and so on. Unless you’ve become truly disconnected from feeling, or rigidly attached to routine, you’ll notice that things never stay the same for long.
Spiritually-minded people might say that the more you learn, the harder the lessons seem to get. Well, if death is the ultimate challenge to face, the theory makes sense. Some say they don't fear death. Perhaps it is more that they don't take the idea too seriously.
If the fear is acknowledged, it may be rooted in several things: Pain, change, attachment, loss of identity, and mostly fear of the unknown. Nobody wants to imagine their life ending in an unpleasant way, but that's missing the point. The ‘how’ is irrelevant, it is the quality of experience preceding it that should be in question.
There’s nothing like death to make you feel love
Suddenly we realise, even if we didn't consciously feel much self-love before, that we are quite keen on sticking around in this body. Its value dramatically increases when we can admit to our fear of death. Health instantly becomes a top priority. Casual habits reveal themselves as disrespect and lack of appreciation. Yet despite the impact of these realisations, we develop cyclical amnesia over this.
Those who survive serious accidents may forget both the terror and the gratitude for survival within a year or two, and return to old, destructive habits. Humans have an astounding capacity for denial. We only really want to deal with things when they get too uncomfortable to ignore.
One day death will be on the cards, and there is no getting out of it. We see it every day but we still maintain the bizarre notion that it doesn't apply to us. It's like an irrational immortality delusion. We see it on the news, in films and video games... so often that it becomes cartoon-like, almost unreal. It's always somebody else's problem. Until it isn’t.
In the end, only experiences and people matter
Common are tales of those that never gave a thought to religion, but just before the final curtain develop a fixation with God. Afterlife questions loom into focus with a newfound significance and the need to believe becomes urgent. It's a common thing that people say they only remembered experiences in the end.
The material accumulation seems to lose all significance. Do you want to be one of the pitiful people laying helpless on their death beds full of regrets, wishing they had traveled more? Wishing they had not spent so much time worrying, or hoarding all their money for a future date that never came?
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
— Mark Twain
What if we were to wake up every day and tick a day off a calendar, wouldn't that serve as a potent reminder that we don't have forever? If you started your day aware that you may not even make it to the end of that week, how different would your attitude and behaviour be? How quickly would you stop procrastinating and feeling anxious over small daily details? How much appreciation would you want to show to those you love?
Make the transition with no regrets
If you were to start accepting - not just intellectually acknowledging it, but really diving into the feeling of finality - from right this moment, admitting that your days are numbered, perhaps by the time that it comes around you will have already made peace with the idea. Who knows, maybe this daily pondering would to inspire you to make the most of your life.
Maybe it would invoke a true appreciation of the smallest details. Incidentally, your awareness may eventually open to the extent that you will genuinely embrace the idea of the afterlife; perhaps you’ll even find yourself looking forward to the transition.
It's surprising how many fritter their lives away, focused on trivial values, convinced that it is other people who realise their dreams, telling themselves there is always tomorrow… they are missing the value of the moment and awareness of what a mind-meltingly amazing gift it is to have a life in the first place. This is the equivalent of sleeping right through into your final coma - life could be said to be a dream, but if you dream consciously, you'll escape the alternative outcome: the inevitable nightmare of a realisation that you wasted it.