I have been ruminating about death. Perhaps it is one of the books I am currently reading, “The Schopenhauer Cure” by Yalom. Or maybe it’s the continued failing of my senses (I walk around with cheater glasses on while at home almost the whole time. I can barely read a text on my phone without getting closer to the sun for direct light). Perhaps it is the frequency with which I have been visiting heights, and the impending threat of sky diving. Or, perhaps it is in my nature and existential leanings. Whatever the reason, I am ruminating.
Most of my readers know that I believe it is important to remain aware of your death. The point of this article will be to discuss balancing the morbidity of focusing on your death and utilizing the thoughts to keep you motivated to live life to its fullest.
In my most recent article I discussed loneliness and the death instinct. It seems it relates to my ruminations about death as well. In that article I discuss Freud’s death instinct, which is also identified as aggression. In its most damaging incarnation it is what pushes the individual to their own destruction. I have often felt my own death instinct is over active at times. This would purport an explanation of the insanely risky behavior of my youth, as well as some of the risky decisions I make today (I have been pulled over twice in the last 3 months for failing to wear a seatbelt. No other violation, just the seatbelt). Additionally it would help to explain why I have been so focused on my own demise lately.
My personal ruminations have dealt with my fear of being dead. I have thought of what it will feel like to die, knowing I will never see my loved ones again. I have thought of who would really care, not in a self pitying manner, but in regard to those who were once close and who have drifted so far. I mean think about it: how many people have come and gone in my life, with my thoughts we would forever be attached, as they interested me so. Yet they are gone from my life now, as I am sure I am from many others. I have wondered what people will really say about me, what they really think about me. I try to have this question answered while in relationship with them, but the truth may not be always spoken. I think of how my children will be, if my youngest would be forever scarred if I died by my predicted age of 50 many years ago (he would only be 9). Of course these ruminations are sad.
What is to be done with these ruminations? Many people avoid thinking in such a way. Many find it morbid. Many find it depressing. And perhaps it is. But it is a necessity according to many existentialists. I am not sure these ruminations are totally healthy. In many Eastern philosophies (and in a movement in this country by psychologists) just being with your thoughts and feelings and determining what use to make of them is what is to be done. The good that can come from it is the embracing of life that can come from the motivation it provides. Additionally it is important to embrace all aspects of life and not avoid what we usually feel to be unpleasant.
In the book I am currently reading by Yalom, the fictional main character is an existential therapist who is told he has melanoma and has about a year of healthy life left. Admittedly I have not yet finished the book, but thus far it is excellent (I will likely review it in an upcoming blog). It explores this therapist facing death, dealing with his clients’ reaction to it, and follows some of the other dynamics of therapy. Beyond that there is a client who goes on a retreat to a Buddhist ashram.
The main character looks at what he will do with his remaining year and decides to do what he loves, continue to work with his clients. I know I bring this up a great deal, but I love what I do. Sure, there are quite a few things I’d like to do if I knew I was dying: see Europe, China, Japan, South America, maybe live on a island somewhere, just relaxing, reading, writing. But likely I would slow down working a little, but continue to teach and see clients. First, I don’t have the money for world travel (although I could just backpack). Second, I think I would be bored just relaxing on a beach. Third, although I tend to be pretty self-contained and self-sufficient, I value the human connections that I have.
This brings me to the point of the ruminations, and how one can make use of them. I recently read an article by Jon Kabat-Zinn about how our technology is keeping us from really attending to those around us. This is often true, even for one who attempts to educate others about the risks of this. My work keeps me busy, and at times my son is playing video games I’ll squeeze in some work. The ruminations help me to realize these moments with him will never happen again.
As I said at the beginning of this article there must be a balance when thinking of the impermanence of life. Too much and it is depressing and may leave you immobilized. Too little and its avoidance and will not motivate you to embrace the moments. But, as one of my tattoos says, Memento Mori: remember your death.