DEATH: a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter

Is today’s subject making you feel a bit squeamish? At my age (72 when this was written), it’s quite natural to think about death, but most people are like children who are afraid of the dark; they’re uncomfortable with this subject. Yet, contemplating death is similar to buying life insurance. If you are serious about protecting your family, you will buy it when you are young and don’t need it. If you were to wait until you needed it, it would be too late. In the same way, if you wait until you are old and feeble to realize you will die, you may find that all of the goals you had wished to accomplish “someday” never materialized. You see, the greatest tragedy is not death, but dying with regrets, dying with the knowledge that we wasted much of our life. On the other hand, if we diligently plan our future and achieve our goals, at the moment of death we will be at peace and proud of our accomplishments.

Do you remember the riots in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China? At that period of time you probably had many goals and plans for the future. I wonder how many of them you accomplished. You see, the riots took place in May of 1989, 20 years ago! Time passes quickly, doesn’t it? Perhaps if we had frequently reminded ourselves that we are going to die, we would have made plans and implemented them much sooner. Or as Samuel Johnson (1709 ~ 1784) said, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

We all know we’re going to die, but judging by our actions, we don’t believe it. We keep postponing life. But if we knew we were going to be hanged in two weeks, we’d probably do everything possible to get the most from life. A good exercise to perform is to invite the hangman in and have him announce our execution date, for that will help to concentrate our mind wonderfully. I know it has helped me, for I came to realize that although death destroys man, the idea of death saves him. That is, the idea of it convinces us to work on our dreams NOW, which leads us to an exciting, adventuresome life.

So, how do we invite the hangman and convince him to announce our execution date? That’s easy; just visit The Death Clock at Once there, enter your date of birth, gender, Body Mass Index (it will calculate your BMI for you if you don’t know it), and whether you smoke or not. Then click the CHECK YOUR DEATH CLOCK button and the answer will appear. In my case, the hangman announced that my day of reckoning will be Thursday, February 10, 2011.

February, 2011? Yikes, that’s less than two years from now! But wait a minute; I forgot to mention that the Death Clock has another button called MODE. Click it and you will have a choice of Normal, Pessimistic, Sadistic, and Optimistic. This button allows you to adjust the settings to more closely match the part of the world and environment you live in. The February 2011 result I got was because the mode was set to Normal. That just calculates the death of the AVERAGE person.

Since I live in Canada and have parents that lived into their 90’s, most likely I will live longer, So, I reset the Mode button to Optimistic and here’s what I got: I will die on Saturday, March 10, 2035 (that would make me 98).

A story is told about a retired man who found he wasn’t spending enough time on weekends doing the important things, such as visiting his grandchildren. So he decided to do something about it. He went to a hobby shop and bought 780 beautiful marbles and a clear bottle to store them in. Why would a 65 year old man buy 780 marbles? Because he figured that he would probably live until 80, or for another 15 years, and there are 780 weekends in 15 years. His plan was to remove one marble from the bottle each week to dramatically show him how quickly life was slipping away. The diminishing number of marbles motivated him to spend his time wisely.

I also like to measure time in weeks. And like me, you probably find that they go by swiftly. Instead of marbles, I use a simple computer program called Countdown that measures the years, months, weekends, days, minutes, and seconds before my next appointment, project, or task. My most important project is MY LIFE. Although the Optimistic Mode of the Death Clock says my life will end on March 10, 2035, I set the Countdown program to a more conservative date of March 10, 2030. And according to it, I now have 1,346 weeks to accomplish all those things I want to get done. You can learn about the Countdown program here:

Whether one uses the Death Clock, Countdown, or marbles, some may feel that it is too depressing to see how LITTLE time remains in one’s life. But I prefer to see it as how much MORE I can continue to enjoy life, IF I USE MY REMAINING TIME WISELY. Remembering that we will die is an excellent way to start the day; it’s like turning on the ignition of your car, preparing you to move forward on the highway of life. The Greek philosopher Epictetus (50 ~ 120) also recommended this practice, for he taught, “Let death be daily before your eyes, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.”

Muriel Spark (1918 ~ 2006) is of similar mind: “If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever- present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.”

Thinking about death daily not only motivates us to act NOW, while there is still time, but by regularly facing it, we stop fearing it. Why would we want to fear death? Doing so will not keep us from dying, but it will keep us from living life fully. In fact, to fear death is to die before one’s time. On the other hand, if we face death unafraid, we become invincible. For if we can accept our own death, what is there left that can frighten us?

All creatures die, but man alone is aware of his own mortality. Because of this, man alone has the option of living courageously and heroically. Thanks to death and the courage it demands, man can live an exciting life as an explorer and adventurer.

Not only does death provide us with the opportunity to strengthen our heart with courage, but it invites us to open our hearts with love. For each tick of the clock is a reminder that everyone we meet is dying. Buddha taught, “Everyone you meet on your life journey will die. Knowing this, how can you be angry at anyone?” If we don’t treat people with kindness and respect NOW, when shall we do it? Don’t wait until loved ones die before you act, for “A single rose for the living is better than a costly wreath at the grave.”

It is only when we are aware of the brevity of life that it becomes precious. Knowing that we are blessed with a rare gift, how can we not savor it? If there were no death, boredom, meaninglessness, and indifference would eventually creep in. Perhaps this is why Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Yes, death is an invitation to CARE about life.

Death is just one of many painful losses that we are likely to experience in our lifetime.  For example, we may lose our job, home, spouse (through death or divorce), money, health, friends, courage, independence, hope, or freedom. Practice letting go of your losses and accepting the transitory nature of life. Each loss you experience is an opportunity to prepare for your final loss. However, as suggested earlier, the best preparation is to live without regrets.

One way of developing the skill of living without regrets is by keeping what I call a “Gladness Journal.” At the end of the day, just answer four questions in your Gladness Journal. 1. What do I regret not doing today? 2. What do I regret doing today? 3. What will I do differently tomorrow? 4. What am I glad I did today? As you can see, the title of the journal comes from question number 4. As you practice this daily, you will find the number of your regrets will steadily fall while the number of glad moments will steadily rise. Practice this regularly and you will be well prepared for a peaceful death.

I’ll end this article with a short story, a short answer to a question, a short prayer, and additional resources.

A gravely ill man was asked if he thought he was dying. He replied, “Really, my friend, I care not whether I am or not; for if I die, I shall be with my Creator: if I live, He will be with me.”

“Death is only the servant who opens the door when Providence rings the bell, and ushers you into a larger building.” (George H. Hepworth, 1833 ~ 1902)

Teach me to live that I may dread,
The grave as little as my bed.
(Thomas Ken, 1637 ~ 1711)