The Mysteries of Life and Death

Believe it or not, my life is based on a true story. Come to think of it, so is yours. And so was Quentin Crisp‘s. One of the lines he left with us before his death at age 90 was, “Life was a funny thing that happened to me on the way to the grave.” When we can joke about life, it shows we put it in proper perspective. That is, we take it lightly. Meaning, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Life is grand, but we’re just a small part of it. We’re important, mind you, but replaceable. To lead a balanced life, we don’t want to exaggerate our significance.

Taking life lightly doesn’t mean living without passion. On the contrary, we want to burn brightly in the wind, before it blows us out. We want to embrace life and thank it for the opportunity to love, work, and play. We want to dive in and plunge into its depths. Everyone dies, but not everyone lives, and we refuse to join those who merely exist. To be or not to be is not the question. To live or not to live; that is the question.

We embrace life by living courageously. Since we’re not going to get out of it alive, why hold back? We need to attack it with boldness. The only thing we need to fear is living too cautiously. Ironically, life is most exciting when we love someone, something, or some cause more than life itself.

As a young man, Tommy was dying to graduate high school and go off to college. Then he was dying to graduate college and start working. Next, he was dying to get married and settle down. No sooner than he did so, he was dying to get a house. Then, dying to pay off the mortgage. Finally, dying to retire. Now, an old man, Tommy is just dying. It seems that all his life he was just chasing after dreams. Although he was always dying to do many things, the thought never occurred to him to be dying to live. Life isn’t about chasing the future; it’s about experiencing the present. It’s about relishing this moment. Life is a present and the present. That’s why we call it a gift.

Life is the sound of a frog splashing into a pond. It is a blinding flash of lightning that sparkles in the eyes of an owl. It is the spring mist that silently hides pastel blossoms. Those who dwell in the beauty and mystery of life are never lonely. They also know life is the aroma of the soft grass we lie on while delighting in the warm rays of a spring day. It is also the taste of blackberries just plucked from a bush. It is all these and a great deal more. For it is a boundless tapestry that we observe, weave, and experience. Life is a feature film, projected one frame at a time, and we are the director, main actor, and audience member.

It is not death that we need to fear, but an inadequate life. Why? Because life is not lost when we die. It is only lost while we live. In is lost in opportunities that we allow to slip through our fingers. In each moment of inaction, we die bit by bit. When we waste time, we kill it. When we kill time, we murder life. If life is marching by, shouldn’t we be joining in? After all, one-third of our life is spent sleeping and another third in growing up and growing old. How much is left to live? We are Mayflies. Our lives are fleeting; we’re here a single day.

Obviously, the time to start living is now. But the choice is ours. Either we let our lives slip away by not doing what we want to, or we get up and join the parade. Yes, life is brief, but don’t despair; you still have 100% of the rest of your life left. We didn’t choose where and when we would be born, nor can we choose where, when, and how we will die. But we can choose whether we live or exist. And if we choose to live, we can decide how we wish to live.

Life expresses itself in action. It is not, “I think and therefore I am,” but “I act and therefore I live.” This assumes our actions are done with awareness. Once we accept that life is not a dress rehearsal — we have only one shot at it — we will be more inclined to act. How, then, should we act? Viktor E. Frankl offers one suggestion, “Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.”

We have to be willing to accept what life gives us. But we don’t have to take it and leave it; we can take it and change it. Isn’t that why we’re here? To make the world a better place? As Mark Twain said, “Let us so live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.” Let’s not take life for granted, but appreciate each moment. After all, it doesn’t matter how much we have; it only matters how much we appreciate what we have. Also, appreciate others. For when we appreciate their great deeds, we magically share in their goodness.

To enjoy life to the fullest, we need to know where we are, where we want to be, and how to get there. True, the road may be tough. So, you may be tempted to say, “Life is hard.” If you do, ask yourself, “Hard compared to what?” Besides, even if we’re not where we want to be, as long as we are advancing toward our goal, we can enjoy the present moment. Life doesn’t happen to us, it happens from us because we create it. We can avoid stumbling through life by focusing on growing throughout life.

We already know life is expressed by action, but the crown jewel of action is love. Kahlil Gibran explains, “Life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit.” Victor Hugo‘s explanation is equally valid, “Life is a flower of which love is the honey.” What is the message of love? Simply this, the major purpose of our life is the happiness and joy it brings to others. May you live (not merely exist) all the days of your life!

More about Life

After work, the four members of the marketing team went to the pub for their weekly get-together. Unlike the past, today’s subject was a heavy one. Instead of talking about sports, politics, or women, they broached the subject of LIFE. Casper started. “You know,” he said, “life is nothing more than a sexually transmitted disease, and a terminal one at that.”

“You’re right,” Xavier chimed in, “all life is, is a substance that temporarily prevents our bodies from rotting.” On a more benign note, Spencer yawned and said, “Life is something you do when you can’t sleep.” While pushing the frame of his eyeglasses firmly on his nose, Errol added, “Here’s what I think. A person who works hard and accomplishes a great deal meets the same fate as one that doesn’t, for they both die. So, what’s the point of it all if it all ends in death?”

Those who, like Errol, can’t help wondering what the point of it all is are focusing on the wrong thing, death. For if you focus on life, the answer immediately becomes clear. The point of it all is to live a life of exuberance, joy, excitement, and wonder. The point of life is to experience the excitement of discovery, joy of achievement, and wonder of mystery. The point is to take delight in the surprises that constantly come our way.

Simply put, the point of life is to enjoy it; that is, to live IN JOY. Since we cannot give away what we do not have, it is important that we meet our own needs first. Ultimately, however, the reason for enjoying life is to make the lives of others enjoyable. For as George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans Cross) wrote, “What do we live for; if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”

Adam Lindsay Gordon expressed similar sentiments in verse:

“Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.”

The point of it all is to make a point, to have a reason for being, to be a point of light by making a difference. In other words, the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose. Usually, we don’t have to waste time trying to discover our life purpose because it is not to be found, but to be created by us.

If your personal calling is not obvious to you, be still for a moment and ask your inner wisdom for guidance. Franz Kafka explains: “Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.”

What’s the point of being successful and having plenty to live on if one has nothing to live for? So, pick a cause. It is belief in something greater than yourself and enthusiasm in pursuing it that makes life worth living.

Some complain about the minor irritants and misfortune that come their way. But so-called ‘problems’ are blessings for they provide the contrast that allows us to enjoy life. For example, Canadians love to escape from their harsh winters by visiting Florida and Hawaii. They find the contrast in weather delightful. So it is with the rest of life. The reason we enjoy the good times so much is because of the bad times. So, learn how to accept the bad with the good. Or, as Roger C. Anderson put it, “Accept that some days you’re the pigeon, and some days you’re the statue.”

Others complain that life isn’t fair, but that hardly is the case. After all, rich or poor, male or female, young or old, we all receive the same allotment of 86,400 seconds a day. That’s fair isn’t it? If some choose to use that time wisely and others choose to squander it, that’s not the fault of life, is it? Also, what can be fairer than reaping what we sow?

Besides, as Lewis L Dunnington explains, “What life means to us is determined, not so much by what life brings to us as by the attitude we bring to life; not so much by what happens to us as by our reaction to what happens.” Thomas L. Holdcroft shares an equally valid view, “Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us.”

Some believe in life after death, but what about life after birth? What’s the point of life if you’re not really living it? You probably agree with Philip Larkin who wrote, “Life has a practice of living you, if you don’t live it.” So, get involved with life by doing and experiencing as much as possible. After all, not to engage with life is not to live at all. Isn’t it better to die alive than to live dead?

Because of the brevity of life, the time to start living is now. Here are three quotes to forcefully bring home this message: 1. “For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away (James 4:14). 2. “This life of separateness may be compared to a dream, a phantasm, a bubble, a shadow, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.” (Buddha) 3. “When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning — how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.” (Lord Byron)

Yes, life is like a taxi. Whether you’re an active participant or not, the meter keeps ticking. But don’t despair, for today you still have 100% of the remainder of your life left. You still have time to act. You still have time to make the right choice. And while we’re on the subject of choices, remember that “There is a choice you have to make, In everything you do. And you must always keep in mind, the choice you make, makes you.” (John Wooden)

So, don’t take life for granted. Take it with gratitude. And leave it in better shape than you found it. Do you want to guarantee a successful life and peaceful death? Then follow the advice of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert who penned, “Live as you would have wished to live when you come to die.”

And Death

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.

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 it, 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!

References

BOOKS

Death & Dying, Life & Living by Charles Corr, Donna Corr, and Kenneth Doka

Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience by van Lommel, Pim

Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life by John Martin Fischer

Life and Death in One Breath by Sadhguru

Death by Shelly Kagan

Save Your Own Damn Life: A Do It Yourself Self Help Book by Jessica Jeboult

VIDEOS

Unlocking the Mystery of Life

Death: A Free Philosophy Course from Yale

Why You Shouldn’t Fear Death

Leave a Comment