To think of and prepare for death is not surrender, but victory over fear
If you are like most, you may be a bit squeamish when it comes to the subject of death. Most likely, it is something you would rather not think about. However, blocking the thought of death from one’s mind is a mistake. Those who choose to suppress thoughts of death can never realize their full potential. For it is only when we admit that death is an arrow in flight coming our way that we are motivated to act now. When we pretend to ourselves that death couldn’t possibly come today, but must be lurking at a distant point in the future, we falsely believe there is no need to act immediately. Who do you suppose are the great achievers: those who are ever aware of the nearness of death or those with their heads in the sand?
Because of death, life has value. When you realize that those you love can be taken from you at any moment, you cherish them all the more. It is death that makes life such a valuable gift. When one offers their own life to protect their country or family, there’s no greater gift. Those who work as volunteers, helping others, are offering part of their lives. And because life is limited, the time they spend serving others is a precious gift.
When we face death, rather than hide from it, we develop the courage to accomplish anything. After all, if we don’t fear death, what remains to frighten us? That’s why Paul Tillich writes, “It is man only who is able to face his death consciously; that belongs to his greatness and dignity.” Also, our problems are easier to accept when we realize the only people without difficulties are those in the cemetery. Contemplating death is like bungee jumping, it makes life exhilarating and leads to a heightened sense of aliveness. Since we will all die, it makes sense to make our final moments as peaceful as possible. How do we do this? Let Leonardo Da Vinci explain: “As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.” And it is only by constantly being aware of death that we will have a life well used.
Don’t misunderstand. When I suggest we should be constantly aware of death, I’m not referring to a morbid fascination or obsession with death. The focus of our attention is not on death, but on living. However, while living, we maintain an awareness of death in the background, and use it to guide us in doing good. For example, a friend does something stupid and hurtful. How should I react? Should I get angry with him? An awareness of death allows me to marvel at the miracle of life, understand its frailty, and realize my friend or I may die at any moment. So, shouldn’t I cherish our relationship and overlook his flaws? Should I get angry with him? No, of course not! Maybe what he did today was stupid, but he’ll learn. Besides, tomorrow I may be the one doing something stupid.
But how can we practice being aware of death when the mere thought of the subject sends a chill down our spine? The secret is to become aware of and analyze our fears, for they melt under the bright light of scrutiny. One reason we fear death is because of our instinct for self-preservation. If you are afraid of crossing a dangerous intersection, your fear makes you more alert and cautious, which is good. This fear only crops up when you are exposed to danger, so it shouldn’t interfere when contemplating death. However, the following examples do prevent some people from practicing an awareness of death.
1) Perhaps our biggest fear is annihilation, extinction, or disappearance of our identity. Isn’t life all we have? So, its loss is the greatest loss we can suffer. But it only appears that way because we are too caught up in ourselves, too much in love with ourselves. If we step back, we will realize the universe doesn’t revolve around us, but we revolve with it. Enjoy the ride! Redirect your love from yourself to the universe. Do this and you won’t be disappointed. For even though you and I will go, the universe will still be here. Does any one rose, snowflake, or cherry blossom have more value, significance, or meaning than another? What makes you think we are any different? Each one of us is just another wave in the ocean of life. Relax. Don’t take things so seriously. For as Norman Cousins wrote, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”
2) Many of us were taught about life after death, but are uncertain about the outcome, so we’re afraid. This is simply fear of the unknown. If you believe in life after death, the solution is simple. Lead the good life and you’ll receive your reward. If it turns out you were wrong and there is no afterlife, you won’t know about your mistake, so there’s no point in worrying about it.
3) A common concern is fear of suffering. However, this is not fear of death, but fear of the dying process. We are dying now; it’s just a little more obvious near the end of our lives. There is no need to fear death since you will never experience it. As long as you are dying, you are still living. That’s the paradox. As far as fear of suffering at the end, instead of wasting your energy with useless fear and worry, apply that energy to maintaining a healthy physical, mental, and spiritual life. At least that will make the end easier to bear.
4) Some fear that death proves all our efforts were meaningless. Don’t believe it! Don’t I often quote the words of wise men who lived 2,500 years ago? Imagine, they’ve been dead so long and their words are still being quoted. Their lives were not meaningless! Believe it or not, even the lives of ordinary folk, such as you and I, have impact on the world. During our lifetimes, our words and actions directly and indirectly affect thousands of people. Our actions produce ripples that stretch out to eternity. Are our lives meaningless? Not a chance!
“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble,” James Baldwin wrote, “the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.” Well, life may be a candle in the wind, but, oh, it gives such a lovely light!