If you’ve arrived here expecting a dying woman’s wise take on life, I’m not going to lead you on any further.
I neither purport to be wise nor am I imminently dying.
But if you’d like to partake in a thought experiment, indulge my dramatic opening a while longer.
“We often read very moving accounts from the dying themselves — those at the threshold of dying, I should say, unlike the rest of us, who are simply in earlier stages of dying — about the profound lessons that seem so obvious at the end of life.” - Arianna Huffington
When I read Arianna’s reflections on death in her book Thrive, I was struck by her inconspicuous digression — suggesting that we are all, in fact, dying, starting from the moment we are born.
Intellectually, we know that we’re all going to die (unless you’re a Silicon Valley mogul). But are we emotionally aligned with the idea that we are, right this second, in the process of dying?
I sure am not.
What keeps us from acknowledging our own mortality?
We, particularly in the Western hemisphere, have perpetuated a culture of idolizing youth, to the detriment of learning from the elderly and the dying.
We correlate youth with beauty, creativity, courage, and fertility.
We applaud talent and success with more fervor when they are displayed next to a number under 30. (Yes, Forbes, I’m looking at you.)
More broadly, we systematically assign labels to age groups up until the life expectancy threshold — after which, you’re pretty much left for dead, whether you are dead or not.
The Life Rule Book looks something like this.
- 0–7 years old. Be cute, entertaining, obedient (unless you’re male, in which case pretend to be obedient). Be as creative as you like, because that’s part of being cute and entertaining.
- 7–18 years old. “So long as you’re in my house, you follow my rules.” Be a good student. Listen to adults, because they know more than you. Decide what you want to do for the rest of your life.
- 18–30 years old. Dream, try, fail. Have sex. Party, experiment, “this is what your 20s are for”. Act low-maintenance, but also become successful so you stand out at your 10-year high-school reunion.
- 30–40 years old. Start a family, or become worried that you haven’t. Get a mortgage. Forgive your parents for all their sins because they will die soon.
- 40–50 years old. Get a menopause. Or a mistress. Try to lose weight. Get a promotion before the MBA kid does.
- 50–60 years old. Don’t get divorced or you’ll end up alone. Maybe do some traveling.
- 60+. Grow white hair and accept your name is now Grandma/ Grandpa.
- No further segmentation necessary, because whether you’ll be dead in 2, 10, or 30 years, your identity is decided for you. You are too close to death for people’s comfort, so they box you up under “60+” and run.
We’re scared of what we don’t know.
Our theories about death range from a binary set of destinations, to infinite attempts at enlightenment, to disintegration into nothingness.
Yet, no matter what our creed is, there is no one who saw what happens after death and returned to tell the tale (I am referring here to permanent clinical death).
So, I’m willing to bet that our discomfort around dying stems from our preference for certainty over uncertainty. Sure, my life may be on the brink of emotional and financial collapse, but at least I know where I stand. If I die tomorrow, I have no idea where I’m going.
And that’s way scarier than the pocket-sized Life Rule Book that the world has handed to me.
The Thought Experiment
So what would happen if, right now, I accept that I am dying, just as readily as if I had a terminal illness?
I would ask myself:
Have I loved fully?
There is peace knowing that I’ve chosen love over fear, values over social norms, beings over things. Loving fully is connecting to the deepest source within us all, thus connecting with life itself.
Who will I miss most?
The souls I have encountered will never be shown to me in that form again. It’s not just the living that grieve, it is the dying, too. The memories shared with those that have come and gone are a fleeting, yet immeasurable gift.
How do I want to go?
I’d put everything that happened in the past behind me. Complete presence. Attention and gratitude towards every detail of life, every tiny ant, and every human smile. Surrendering to the larger plan that I am part of.
What do I want to leave behind?
If there are people who will remember me, I would want them to know how loved they are. I’d want my life and my art to inspire humans to live with kindness, peace, and purpose.
I imagine that faced with death, I would have a more profound respect for life.
And if I replace the conditional tense with the present tense?
I am faced with death and I have a more profound respect for life.
If our imagination is capable of such great feats as artificial intelligence and Hamilton the musical — then, surely, we can use it to welcome death into our consciousness decades before it’s likely to occur.
And if that means we live our lives more fully, truthfully, and lovingly — then we should probably start right now.