I recently talked about death again to a group of students. This time I was covering developmental psychology in my Introduction to Psychology class. The text we are using this semester talks about the stages of grieving when one knows they are dying. In preparing the exam there was a question about why people don’t report having fear about death. The text discussed how a great many people say they do not have a fear of death. The text discussed how this is often a result of denying the real meaning of death. I take some joy in introducing others to the reality of death in the hope that as a result they will live life more fully.
I often hear an argument on how thinking of death is morbid and how everyone knows they will die and shouldn’t be reminded of it. These folks want to ignore their death. Others take the message to mean they should live for the day, which often is interpreted as becoming irresponsible. If I were told today I would die tomorrow, it is unlikely I would go to work. It is unlikely I’d send out the bills. It is unlikely I would be responsible. But this is not the meaning of thinking about the inevitability of your death.
I am aware I will die. I am aware of my aging and my approaching an end. I am also aware that as I age the possibility of my death being any day becomes greater. I do not view this as morbid. If I sit and wallow in it, it will make me sad. Mostly however, it drives me. There are things I want to accomplish in my life. I want to write and complete the book I have been working on.
I am very busy this semester with the classes I am teaching and the caseload I am building. It is not easy for to find the time to write. After all, I’m working 10 to 12 hours a day and then coming home and reading and preparing for the classes the next day. Other times I’m studying for the licensing exam. I feel behind in my work. I’m not writing for the site as much as I’d like. I’m working out less. I’m barely reading for enjoyment. It would be easy to suspend any writing for the book. Yet every week I add some to the book. It might not be much, but I keep plugging away.
The main reason I do this is because I know how easy it is to put things on the back burner. I know how easy it is to fall into the old belief you have your whole life ahead of you. I know I can fall into putting it off until tomorrow, or next month, or when things calm down, and I know I can fall into the belief that there will definitely be a tomorrow, and a next month. This is a way in which we live. This is how we deny our deaths, and how we don’t realize the passing of life until it is near the end.
This is not to say everything we do has to be productive. To the contrary, there should likely be a balance of productivity and enjoyment. One way the inevitability of death can make life more enjoyable is by realizing how important the moment might be. As I’ve written in the past, knowing the importance of the moment might be one of the most significant things you do. Often people ignore the moment, expecting there will be so much more. Often peoples’ children grow up before their eyes, and before you know it, their grown and your wondering what happened to your little boy (or girl). Yet while they were growing, you let moments slip by, believing there will always be tomorrow to play with them or otherwise be completely present. Instead, you can recognize the nature of your life as transient and embrace the moments in it, and allow its inevitability to motivate you. It is as Yalom says in “Staring at the Sun”, “although the reality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.”