“Don’t wait to realize you’re mortal. Invite the truth of death into your life earlier, and you’ll receive its lessons.”BJ Miller
Whose intrepid eyes will land here? The title alone will send people fleeing. Are we guilty of subconscious death denial, as Ernest Becker suggests in his famous book?
Death transforms the living – but only those curious enough to sit and feel its implications.
This is hard – in no small part because we masterfully insulate ourselves from its reality. 150,000 humans die every single day. Imagine! Two massive soccer stadiums of people – poof. Daily. (And twice that being born. Lo… how the human species churns.)
We know death… in the back of our minds. But it happens out of sight. We see, dimly, our seat in death’s stadium – but – why on EARTH would we grapple with that absurd reality NOW?
Perspective. An atomic blast’s worth. Perspective that yanks us away from the immense gravity of who we believe we are, and what we believe is important. When these beliefs are, at least momentarily, stunned and exposed as brittle pieces of glass — why would we continue clutching them with every fiber of our being? How drastically might experience change, if our grip loosens… or lets go?
And no, not to suggest burning everything down, as if life were suddenly pointless. There is no whiff of nihilism here.
Consider, how everything you do, will be undone.
Consider, how anything anybody does, will be undone.
Consider that, every conceivable pleasure, will vanish in a fraction, of a fraction, of the the long and tantalizing and maddening journey it took to obtain it.
Consider that, the distance between you and any possession, is always lightyears, even when you already have it.
Consider that permanent satisfaction, always, is an imaginary oasis in the desert.
Death promises this. For you. For everyone.
As a result of considering these things, we might then consider how astonishingly beautiful everything already is. Dazzling incomprehensibility, in the words of Maria Popova.
A great poet once said: All castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually. In the cosmic sense, everything is sand. Every brick of our imagination, every brick of reality. Grains and grains.
Should this cause dismay? Again, no. Perspective, is all.
“[Despite] mortal problems, [life] sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.”Albert Camus
There is no “right way” to converse with death. The only choice is when to start (no better time than now)… and how often. No one can deliver death’s lessons. Each of us must contemplate ourselves. This, is the fundamental challenge.
In Zen, a koan is an object – a riddle, a question, a story – intended to provoke understanding. Consider the below a collection of koans. Quotes and audio clips. Each a pebble you might drop into the pond of your mind. Ripples take time to expand… hours, days, months. Hence this being a conversation. Conversations continue.
Death Unites Us
“Suffering is the very thing that unites us. Compassion. Literally – suffering together. So much of what we are talking about, is a change in perspective.”BJ Miller
In college, BJ Miller survived accidental electrocution that left him with three amputated limbs. Since then, he’s worked as a palliative care physician – helping people accept and integrate suffering, sometimes at end of life, sometimes in the middle. This is a crucial note – suffering and loss are with us from the moment we’re born! Death is not merely some terminal event, but surrounds us always, in the form of change, decay, suffering, and loss. When we notice this, the character of everything – hopes, dreams, relationships, appreciation, joy, clinging, expectations – changes drastically.
We hear this our entire lives! In the face of death, we have little choice but to abide. After all, in death, there is no future to plan for! Nor any gain in regretting the past. BJ describes the joy he observes in a cancer patient:
“Kate just wants to know her dog is lying at the foot of her bed – his cold muzzle against her dry skin. Sensuous aesthetic gratification – where – in a moment – in an instant – we are rewarded… for just being. So much if it just comes down to loving our time. With all the heavy duty stuff happening in hospice care, one of the most tried and true interventions is to bake cookies.”BJ Miller
Carpe Diem vs. Carpe Be
You have 1 week left. How will you spend it? Would you move frantically, collecting experiences, agonizing what you will miss? Or would you sit, appreciating the extraordinary splendor in plain sight, fully feeling the completeness of these final moments. This tension is with us our entire lives. Most likely, we’ve spent a lifetime becoming more than being. The suggestion is not to favor one or the other, merely to notice the tension, and learn the art of holding both. Anecdotally, I suspect the most vivid music in human experience is here and now. Sam Harris, BJ, and Shoshana Berger reflect on this, here:
Sail While You Can
Can you be happy if your greatest aspirations don’t come true? Second, how are you prioritizing them? Shoshana recalls a scene from the film Nomadland, that coincidentally, is one of my favorites. In the scene, the character shares the story of a coworker who dies unexpectedly, just prior to using their new retirement sailboat. After witnessing this, the character was so frightened… they quit their job.
Perhaps we see the sailboat as a an unlived dream. On the other hand, perhaps this would-be sailor experienced complete peace and happiness in their final moments, sailing aside.
This is tricky. It might seem like one lesson, but it’s actually two. The first is a challenge – can we find fulfillment, right now, exactly as life is? If not, consider that is actually on the menu – long before death. Second, from that position of fulfillment, carefully prioritize time – while simultaneously understanding – the “doing” is not the gateway to happiness. Happiness is a precondition. The more of life we live with this simultaneous understanding, the more we are able cherish it in realtime.
Living Is The Hard Part
Hearing BJ describe this was vividly reminiscent of a prior essay on the human imagination in a world of abundance. What a fantastic pickle. Can our “outrageously powerful” human mind ever notice, that everything is OK? Or will it cling, ferociously, to the urge that life must be improved… the inertia of ancient survival instinct pulling relentlessly, trying to orient itself in a modern wilderness, until death snaps the chain?
“These minds of ours – these outrageously powerful tools that creation has given us – I’m not sure we know how to use them wisely. They are all over the place… reaching for meaning, narratives, making stuff up, tearing things down – it’s a wild place. When the abstraction death becomes obvious – when our body shuts down – that can be very painful, but then, very peaceful. Eventually you come to acceptance – and there is a really sweet valley on the other side of that mountain.”BJ Miller
(Related, Too Much Brain for Our Own Good)
Clutter and Death Cleaning
Look at all of your possessions. What do you see? A collection of treasure and stories? What will loved ones see, when you’re gone? Equally, look at all of your relationships. Are you caring for the ones that mean the most?
In the final stages of life, a tree dumps its vital nutrients and minerals upon the surrounding eco system. What might this symbolize, for us?
Taboo & Death Ed
Society relegates death to the confines of hospitals, retirement homes, and funerals. What does this signal to us growing up? Death is not merely for the sick, old, and unlucky. It is a matter for all humans, especially the healthiest, to hold as a compass… else we might live delusively, yearning to become eternal… by way of legacy. Or worse, believing we can hide from mortality, in an infinite vortex of distraction.
“We can learn to live well, not in spite of death, but because of it.“BJ Miller
“Death Is Not Inevitable.”
… cries the philosopher and scientist. Wait, what?
Imagine waking up tomorrow and reading scientists found the precise genetic triggers for aging, and can stop and/or reverse the process. Boom – infinite humans. How might this affect any of the above?
Beneath death, lies the impenetrable mystery of the human spirit. Who are we? Are we a soul with a brain? Are we the brain? Are we a little compartment in the brain, not exactly privy to what the rest of the brain is up to? (When’s the last time you thought about beating your own heart, healing your own wounds, or fighting hostile bacteria in your stomach?).
Somewhere within this biologically-entangled spirit resides “us” and the physics of the human mind. What it’s like to be – what it’s like to experience sensations – to feel synonymous with ideas – confabulations – urges – frustrations… to form goals, to form goals of questioning those goals, to form goals of having no goals, and so on…
Death, as we know it, is a reliable catapult into the heart of spiritual questions and the physics of human experience. Vanquishing death does not eliminate these questions, nor eliminate suffering, nor negate the potential for transformation that might occur as a consequence of contemplation.
If someday, the average human lifespan is measured in thousands of years, as opposed to tens, I sure hope those hypothetical humans won’t hold on too tight. Whether death serves as their pathway, or something else, the human spirit must somehow relax into the incomprehensible.
After all, what is there to hold on to?
Audio clips from one of the most beautiful conversations I’ve heard – not on death – but in general. I’ve listened to it fully, twice, and replayed particular segments numerous times. Thank you to BJ, Shoshana, and Sam: Preparing for the End
The above conversation is a stepping-stone to lifelong topic. I am off to read a book by BJ and Shoshana, A Beginner’s Guide to the End, which complements these ideas with extensive practice advice – i.e. the healthcare system, the process of dying, and surprises we’d be better knowing sooner than later. “Death Ed”.
Credit and thanks to Mark Manson for the opening video clip (lightly illustrated by me for emphasis).
If it weren’t for the minds above and similar ones, we’d most certainly have to learn these life-altering lessons the hard way, delaying peace and comfort that might be discovered much sooner.