“Why should I fear death?
If I am, then death is not.
If Death is, then I am not.
Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”
I may soon die. As I now live, these are my thoughts on death.
Growing up in a closely-knit religious community exposed me to more funerals than weddings from a very young age. Each funeral bringing with it a not-so-gentle reminder of how truly ephemeral life is. I have gone to the funerals of strangers, of acquaintances, of distant and close relatives, the unexpected and expected funerals of friends – none get easier to bare.
Humans seem to be the only creatures so grotesquely aware of our own mortality. The fear of death, for many, is the greatest fear there is.
I have been blessed, I dare to say, with the rare opportunity of feeling the gentle caress of the reaper. Death, it seems, has a way of bringing life into perspective. As Saul Bellow says: “Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything.”
In 2012, Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, released a book on the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, she recorded them as:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
In 2012, when I had my first brush in with the reaper, it brought in a lot of time to think about the important things in my life – especially, the thoughts of what would it be like to die and what are my regrets, ever since then, I have lived to the same beating drum.
The headaches that accompanied my encounter offered a lot of sobriety. Pain has a way of never letting you forget its presence, its reason, and its inevitable culmination either in its own death or yours. It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory.
As I felt the pain, I resigned to accept whatever it through at me, and to acknowledge my steady decline – Which, it dawned upon me, is exactly what a healthy person does, although in slow motion. In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.
Having such an experience catapulted me into many abrupt realisations on the shortness of life, the inevitability of death, the things which are truly important and the things that are not – and facing death, one realises what it truly means to live, not merely be alive.
Benjamin Franklin put it quite frankly (ha!) when he said: “Many people die at twenty five and aren’t buried until they are seventy five.” – There is a vast difference between living and being alive.
One of the things we contemplate the most about death is the finality of it. I am reminded of how many African cultures divide people into three main classifications: those who are still alive on earth, the sasha, and the zamani.
Those who are recently deceased and whose time on earth overlapped with those who are still alive on earth are classified as the sasha, the living-dead. They are not seen as completely dead since they continue living in the memories of the living, those who can still bring them to mind, create their likeness in art, tell stories of their life in anecdote.
When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that previously-remembered ancestor passes from sasha to zamani, the dead. They become generalised ancestors – no longer the living-dead, simple dead.
It is often said that a person dies twice; once when they breathe their last, and once when they are remembered for the last time.
But as Epicurus said: “Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”
If we are to be completely honest with ourselves, we do not fear death, we fear not living. The finality of not having the safety of a tomorrow in which we can put off today.
There is a wisdom in the idea of ‘living in the moment’ that ancient cultures understood centuries ago. There is a beautiful Buddhist story where the Buddha asks his audience: “What is the length of a lifetime?” to which the congregation respond with many guessed years as a reply. The Buddha denies every response as being true. Perplexed, the audience asks: “How long is a lifetime, oh Buddha?” to which the Buddha takes in a deep breath, smiles, and replies: “Oh, but a single breath!”.
If we lived every moment as if it were our last, as if it were an entire lifetime, one day we will sure be right. Often, you should remind yourself: Am I doing in this moment what I would do if it were my last? – and if your answer is no too often, change it.
In 2005, Steve Jobs gave what has become one of the greatest commencement speeches in history. In his speech he spoke of the three greatest lessons of his life, one of which had to do with living, the other with dying, and the other about ones purpose. Here are the most notable parts of what he had to say:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because 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.“
What stuck with me the most was the realisation of how true he was; there is no reason not to follow your heart. The first regret of the dying was that they wished they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them – too many people live life believing they are doing the right thing for themselves, for others, for their family – that they end up not following their own hearts and become part of the statistic of those who have deathbed regrets.
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.“
Speaking of the heart; love and passion, Steve earlier exclaims:
“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.“
These, I believe, will be words of wisdom that will (and should) be immortalised.
Facing death, I decided to make a few promises to myself to follow for as long as I continued breathing, there are three:
Be true to myself: The greatest regret of the dying is not being true to oneself. This was also a regret I had for myself, which I do not have anymore. This was a difficult journey for me to begin with, but it has been an immensely fulfilling journey that I would never regret.
I made major changes like letting go of my religion (even if it costed me many friendships and relationships), I let go of relationships (I was engaged). I said plainly whom I was, boldly, with no regret.
It was at this moment of being truly myself that I became my most powerful, my most happiest. I no longer needed the judgement and permission of others to be truly happy, that was on me, and I was free.
Never settle: Never settle for less than what sets your heart and soul alight. Too many people reach their grave-like deathbeds with the regret of the question “What If”. It certainly is one of the biggest regrets of the dying. We often settle for less because the journey to more isn’t a straight path. We stick to what we know, what we are comfortable with, what is easier – and in the end, when we face the difficult thought of non-existence we wish we behaved differently, we wish we took the plunge when we were younger, we wish we told those whom we love that we loved them without the fear of rejection. We wish so much yet we act so little. Do not settle, go get what your heart and soul yearn for.
Focus on what’s important: No one has ever been on their deathbed wishing they just finished that last client report. We burn ourselves out focused on giving our youth and best years to companies, businesses, career goals, and the pursuit of money – when we reach the end, none of these things ever even seem worthy of thought. In fact, we would often regret not putting away the laptop and enjoying the crying and nagging of our children. As Socrates says: Beware the barrenness of a busy life.
Spend those precious moments with those precious people. Do the things that make you happy, be with those that make you your happiest, be yourself, be free.
I find myself now focusing on having a mission to do a greater good for the world and make those around me happy and to be happy with them rather than focus on the accumulation of money – money is a side-effect.
“Until you have done something for humanity,” wrote the great American educator Horace Mann, “you should be ashamed to die.”
These are the three most important promises I try to live by everyday. The any of those are not as they should be for too long, there is a change that needs to be made. If one lives strictly by these personal promises, there will be few to no regrets at death – death will no longer be feared:
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
― Mark Twain
The most sobering realisation is that we are all dying. I knew when that may be, and it was sooner than most, for others they are merely unaware and possibly just doing it slower and differently – but we will all soon die, but we may not all do so having lived. Because you are reading this, you have life still left in you, do you want the rest of your days to continue as it has today, in this very moment, or would you do something now to make it better – start immediately, change, evolve, grow, but most importantly live.
There is a beautiful little note by Charles Bukowski that I used to think of often:
“My dear, Find what you love and let it kill you.
Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness.
Let it kill you and let it devour your remains. For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.”
When my time comes, and it will, my dear, I want you to know that I have lived well, I have loved deeply, and I was happy and content. I have no regrets, and my only wish for you is that when your time comes, may you have none too.
I have often lit the candle on both ends and found that it gave a lovely light.
I hope that this may not be my last writings on this topic and that I may make some amendments, changes, additions or deletions before this is immortalised as my thoughts on this topic. But until then, I would like to end with the words of the late great Christopher Hitchens:
“To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”
Memento vivere, Memento mori:
Remember to live, for you shall die.