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Why to contemplate death

Western cultures don’t like to think much about death.

We tend to either (a) believe it doesn’t happen (e.g. afterlife) or (b) behave like it won’t happen.

photocred xkcd

When you spend your life in anticipation for an afterlife, life gets simpler. What could be more important than gaining admission? People of lesser faith like to sneer at those that live like this, but if after all of this there is an afterlife, I’ll have wished that I’d spent more of my time getting into “heaven.”

For the growing majority of people who do not believe in the afterlife, a gap emerges in our relationship with the world. We know that we will die, but we resist contemplating this inescapable truth. We like to celebrate lifetime achievements, make bucket lists, and dream about what we might accomplish in the future. Meanwhile, we bemoan our lack of accomplishments and delay finding and pursuing our life’s greatest goals.

Contemplating death can help us. Steve Jobs famously said:

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 what is truly important

We don’t encounter many sure things in our lifetimes. Death presents two of them. First, we know that death is inevitable. No matter who you are and what you accomplish, you will die. Second, we know that death is unpredictable. As much as we’d like to think that we will live the average 80 years, the arc of life is random and nothing we do guarantees safe passage across a full human life. (I draft this as I sit on a plane. While it’s not common for a plane to fail, it happens and there’s nothing I could do about it)

“Sure things” are reliable data points to use when we make decisions about our lives.

Death is inevitable. That means every moment is a step closer to the moment that our time on earth expires. Death is unpredictable. That means every moment could be the moment before our time on earth expires.

This realization leads us to the understanding that the only thing that matters is the present moment. Each moment matters because we continuously march towards our death and this particular moment matters most because it could be the only one we have left.

Knowing this, we should resolve to do the most important possible thing we can in every given moment.

The Dalai Lama explains that in the Buddhist tradition, this means practicing Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), because even for someone who dies of old age, there isn’t much time.

Half of our lives we spend asleep. The first ten years we are merely children, and after twenty we begin to grow old. Meanwhile, our time is taken up with suffering, anxiety, fighting, sickness, and so forth, all of which limit our ability to practice

For a Buddhist, there is nothing more important than the practice of the Middle Way. Every valuable moment on earth should serve this higher purpose. We see this sentiment echoed across all religions with a relationship to the afterlife—getting to the afterlife is your highest purpose on earth.

Those of us with no relationship to an afterlife lose the plot if we avoid contemplating death. If we don’t reflect on the inevitable and unpredictable nature of death, we lose touch with a higher purpose and squander our time on the planet. Instead, we celebrate material and superficial rewards like money and celebrity, and assume that we are entitled a full and healthy life. We grow susceptible to the promises of our American tradition of work that says we should work hard and do what we’re told, delay fulfillment in the present moment, and look forward to material rewards sometime down the line.

This is a very bad deal if we contemplate death.

We avoid thinking about death because we fear it will get in the way of enjoying our lives, but the exact opposite is possible. If we contemplate death, we know that we must resolve to do what fulfills us right now, because a later date might not come. We allow our awareness of death to enrich our experience of life.

Recommended reading

  • Steve Jobs - gr
  • The Essential Dalai Lama - gr

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