Imagine an existence with no death.
You reach adulthood, and then you never grow old, your body never wears out. You never lose anyone you know to the great beyond.
You have unlimited time to do and accomplish anything you can imagine. Want to become the CEO of a big company? Write a novel? Visit every country? Become a great dancer? The world is your oyster.
Sounds amazing, right?
The reality is that such an existence would be boring beyond description — not to mention utterly meaningless.
If we had an eternity to do anything we wanted, we would have no desire or motivation to do anything—there would be no reason to. Our connections with others would be minimal, if not non-existent, because we would have no fear of losing anyone.
In truth, we would long for complete annihilation to escape the monotony of it all.
I recently read When Breath Becomes Air, the story of neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi and his battle with lung cancer, which he ultimately lost.
When Paul was diagnosed and he had to stare hard at his mortality, the fundamental question he set out to answer was, “What makes life worth living in the face of death?” In other words, if we all die anyway, what’s the point of it all? How can life have any meaning if we’re just going to die?
I’ll admit, the book didn’t land with me. And here’s why: I believe Paul was framing the question the wrong way.
Death isn’t what makes life meaningless — it’s the very thing that gives life meaning.
The fact that we’re going to die gives us urgency, and urgency generates motivation to make the most of the breathtakingly short time we have on this earth. Death creates the fear of loss. And in the vulnerability of that fear of loss, we can create meaningful connections with others.
As my friend Andy Chaleff writes in his book, The Last Letter: Embracing Pain to Create a Meaningful Life,
“I am often confused when I hear someone say, ‘I don’t feel like my life is meaningful,’ which is usually followed by a discussion about what they do for a living and what they think needs to change. My thought is, if you want a meaningful life, simply consider everyone whom you love in your life and the fact that they may be gone tomorrow. Sit with that fear and vulnerability.
“When you fully embrace this reality, it can become not something that cripples you, but rather something that motivates you. You can leverage that vulnerability into a meaningful life by following what it prompts you to do. For example, you can look at someone close to you, realize he or she will not always be there, and say simply, ‘I love you.’ In vulnerability we find connection, and in connection we find meaning and joy.”
In the Western world, death is a gloomy and terrifying topic that we avoid. We hush it up and pretend it hasn’t happened. Fundamentally, our culture resists death.
The story is told of a conversation at an English dinner party where the host brings up the question of death and asks the guests to share what they believed would happen to them when they die.
Some mentioned reincarnation, others suggested various planes of being, others thought they were going to just disappear and be gone forever.
Everyone had answered except Sir Roderick, a military type and devout member of the Church of England. The host said, “Sir Roderick, you haven’t said a word. What do you think is going to happen to you when you die?”
“Oh,” he said, “I’m perfectly certain that I shall go to heaven and enjoy everlasting bliss. But I wish you wouldn’t indulge in such a depressing conversation.”
But death need not be depressing nor terrifying. It can be exciting and inspiring.
The most important thing for anyone to realize is that you and every person you know will soon be dead.
The Latin phrase for this is “Memento Mori,” meaning remember that you have to die, or be mindful of death.
And in this phrase, we discover the absolute best motivation to live a life of purpose. As Michel de Montaigne wrote,
“He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.”
In every moment of every day, the constant thoughts running in the back of our mind should be, “Knowing I’m going to die, what do I want my life to be about? Am I doing the most important thing in this moment? How can I maximize the short time I have?”
Because in the face of death, most of our daily complaints become petty and laughable.
A driver cuts you off on the road. So what of it? You’re going to die.
You lose money in an investment. Not to worry — it won’t matter when you’re dead.
You lose your job. Sure, it’s a setback, but you still have time.
The foundation of a life of purpose and meaning is accepting that we are going to die. For in that acceptance, we find motivation to make the most of our time on earth.
I’ll leave you with the question asked by Mary Oliver in her poem, “The Summer Day”:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?