Death is the ultimate affirmation of life . People used to understand this.
This time of year always gets me thinking about death.
I mean death; not violence. The distinction is crucial. In fact, our culture’s fetishization of violence speaks volumes about the distance we’ve put between ourselves and death.
Even before we hide our dead beneath the dirt, we stash them out of sight in basement freezers, while the dying wait in fluorescent-lit hospital rooms, locked safely away from the young and vital. So death becomes an unreal, quasi-mythical beast for many of us — until one day, suddenly, the beast is real.
Most of us don’t want to die. Most of us go through some impressive mental gymnastics to avoid thinking about our own deaths; about the deaths of those we care about; about the deaths of anyone or anything, really. Yet most of us know, on some level, that we will die; and that nothing anyone can do will change this. This is the great problem with being sentient.
Maybe cryonics and mind-uploading will make gods of us all. I’m not holding my breath, but maybe they will. Still, someday the sun will burn out. Entropy will keep increasing. The universe itself will die. Can we ever escape this? Insufficient data for meaningful answer.
But this all misses the point. The absolute core of childlike wonder about the universe — the living, beating heart of curiosity and awe — is the realization that there’s a whole cosmos of stuff to learn and only the briefest eyeblink of time in which to learn it.
This train of thought sounds morbid to some of you, I’m sure — but the word “morbid” doesn’t mean “death-obsessed” or anything of the sort; it simply means “sick.” What, exactly, is sick about staying at our loved ones’ bedsides as they die? What’s sick about acknowledging that tomorrow, it could be us in that bed? What’s sick about gazing straight-on at the razor’s edge that separates each of us from oblivion, and claiming each breath as a prize?
In ancient Rome, when conquering generals would ride through the city in their celebratory chariots, tradition dictated that a servant would ride by the general’s side, whispering “Memento mori.” You, too, will die.
The ancient Greeks even worshipped a god, Dionysus — who you might recognize as the god of wine, but who was so much more than that. He was said to be present at the moment of birth, and the moment at which an animal was slaughtered; at the moment of the vine’s first bloom, and at the time of the harvest; in wild orgies, and in the hearts of beasts of prey. Dionysus, in other words, was the god of those moments when life and death both remind us of one another — and of their inseparability.
Steve Jobs regularly began his workdays by meditating on the inevitability of his own death. He once said, “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.” This man’s last words, as he struggled for his final breaths, were “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”
When I explain these things to some people, they tell me, “If I tried to live every day like that — in full awareness of my own mortality; staring head-on at the inevitability of my own death — I’d be too depressed to do anything.”
My response is, “Have you ever really tried it?” Try it. Try waking up in the morning and meditating honestly on the fact that you could very well die today.
Try looking at the meat on your plate and recognizing that it came from a living creature; one that gave its life so you could live. See how you feel after a few days of this. See what you find out about yourself. I’m not asking you to take my word for it. I’m asking you to be a scientist and try the experiment.
And as for me: