“Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” –Steve Jobs
Last weekend, my wife’s family had a reunion. From the pictures on Facebook, it looked like a fun and festive time for all. The next day at the hotel, check-out time came and went, but her cousin had not come out of his room. Finding no answer at the door, the hotel staff let themselves in. He was dead. Massive heart attack. He was only in his forties, a few years older than me.
Talk about a gut-punch. Even though I didn’t know him, all the photos I ever saw showed what looked like a healthy, vibrant man with a mega-watt smile that lit up the whole scene. He looked like a guy you wanted to get to know, wanted to be around. Good energy. And just like that, he is gone.
I know that death strikes a blow to each of us differently, obviously depending upon who the person was to us, but also playing a role are what age they were, how similar their circumstances were to our own, how they died, and the legacy they are leaving behind based on how they lived.
Clearly, when a person we know and love dies, there is an intensely personal process of grieving to work through, a process that pervades every aspect of our lives during that period and colors our lenses a different way.
Something quite distinct happens—at least to me—when someone I do not know well dies. I go inside myself for a while. I feel hurt by it. Deeply hurt. Not necessarily because of that individual and the pain their loved ones are feeling—though I certainly sympathize, we are talking here about people I am not so personally involved with—but hurt from a different source.
I guess you could say that death causes me to feel hurt by the Universe. It’s a philosophical thing, I suppose. I am pained—tortured, even—by the unfairness of life on Earth and how, in the tiny moment a gun is shot or an artery closed, a beautiful life comes to an abrupt end. As deeply as I have probed the spiritual realm and as prepared as I have many times felt to be taken to the next realm, I somehow still come back to this place where the brevity of life–and the nonguaranteed nature of the next moment—just don’t sit right with me. It feels unfair. And anyone who knows me well knows that unfairness burns me to my core.
But that is life. Short, uncertain, and unfair.
Yes, it is amazing, precious, and littered with beauty everywhere you look, too. I know, and I see it that way, believe me. But in certain moments, like when a smiley young man dies of a massive heart attack in his hotel room, the short, uncertain, and unfair side sure delivers a blow to my psyche.
After I go through my process of feeling sad about that person’s loved ones and the life left behind, inevitably I drift into this patch of days where that death—and “Death” itself, the concept, with a capital D—begins to play on the strings of my soul. The reality of how quickly my own life is passing, not to mention the very real possibility that it could end at any moment for countless reasons beyond my control, gets into my core and really stirs things up.
The bigger questions of my existence here become front-and-center issues in my consciousness. How well am I using your time? What positive impact am I making on my world? Am I using my gifts? Am I allowing my soul to emerge, or is my ego keeping it at bay? Am I living the life I want to live, or the life my parents or society think I should live? Am I making the most of every day? Am I in this moment, or am I stuck in the past or future? Am I sucking the marrow out of life or just drifting by? Am I making a LIFE or just a living? Am I being brave enough? Loving enough? Optimistic enough? Empathetic enough? Forgiving enough? Kind enough? At the end of my days, when my life flashes before my eyes, will it be a show I enjoy and am proud of? Am I living my Truth?
These questions sometimes elicit sobering answers from my mind. Because they are tough ones. Sure, they can be wonderful tools of motivation, serving to remind me of what is most important. But they are also tools of torture. The questions sometimes haunt as much they inspire.
Because, you see, somebody else didn’t get to ask themselves these questions again. Somebody didn’t get another reminder that it is time to make good, time to be bigger and more authentic. I hate that part of it.
When someone my own age or younger than me dies, it is particularly haunting. It makes me start to think it is all borrowed time from here on out. I have to live the kind of life that will allow me to answer those big questions affirmatively precisely because that person didn’t get a chance to. They weren’t allowed the golden opportunity of this day to do something greater, to love bigger, to chase their dreams longer and harder. I get this day that they don’t, and I feel like I owe it to them to do my absolute best, both in my heart and in the world.
I have to stop limiting myself. I have to claim my dreams and give myself fewer excuses for not getting them done. I have to rid my life of the things and people that waste my precious time and energy so that I can devote those resources to doing what I love with the people that I love in the service of this world that I love. Nothing less than that. No compromises. I simply have to be more brave and more disciplined with the life my soul calls upon me to live, for all of the nonguaranteed moments I have left. Death will come for me one day, unbidden, and I would like to be in the midst of something magnificent when it does.
How about you? How can you go about living so as to make your death, whenever it may come, more palatable to you? Open up your journal and make an honest assessment of what you need to do to make the most of your remaining days on this Earth. In what areas are you currently falling short of your standards for a life well-lived? Are you aware of ways that you can right the ship? How much work will it take: is it tweaks or monumental shifts? Are you committed to making the change? Are you like me and sometimes need something as shocking as a death to wake you up to the ways you have gone astray and the need to get back to your Truth before your time is up? What other moments have you had that were reminders of how short this life is? What can you do to keep your priorities front and center, to not waste a day? Is the prospect of death enough to embolden you to live your dreams? I encourage you to go back up a few paragraphs to the italics and ask yourself those questions of existence that are pressing upon me now. I hope your answers to those questions are motivation enough to point you in the direction of your True North. Leave me a reply and let me know: What must you do to make the most of your dash, however short or long it may be?
Be unapologetically you,
P.S. If this got you to consider your existence, and perhaps imagine some new possibilities, I encourage you to share it. We all need a little reminder sometimes. Be well!