How Contemplating Death Can Teach Us How To Live

Joanne Reed
How contemplating death can teach us how to live.Photo by Tao55 via

Death is a difficult topic of conversation. People would rather not think about or talk about death. While we all know that we will die, this is a fact upon which few wish to dwell. Even though, each day countless individuals reach an untimely demise in the prime of their life, rarely do we contemplate that this risk hangs over our head as well. Despite its inevitability, death is one of the least discussed events in our lives.

This is the reason why I decided to dwell on this a little, steering clear of the sordid and morbid aspect of death but choosing instead to focus on the positive aspect of death and how contemplating death could teach us how to live.

There are countless reports of people experiencing near-death experiences to come back to the world of the living with a completely new mindset and a will to live their life more intentionally and more intensely. Although those out-of-the-ordinary experiences are interesting, it is not surprising to think that if you were at death’s door, went on the other side, then came back into the world of the living, for sure you will feel ecstatic and motivated to live your life differently. More difficult to tackle is trying to ascertain how contemplating death could teach us how to live without having to travel to the other side.

How contemplating death could teach us how to live
How contemplating death can teach us how to livePhoto by Onlyyouqj via

Philosophers spend their days thinking about the meaning of life and you can’t talk about life without having to talk about death. Countless philosophers, theologians, and psychologists did not hesitate to tackle this tricky subject and spent countless hours dwelling on it. Their conclusion: death is inextricably a part of life and lifelong consideration of death enriches rather than impoverishes life. These individuals recognized that far from a morbid practice, periodically thinking about death can be life-enhancing.

Though the physicality of death destroys an individual, the idea of death can save him — Irvin Yalom.

The truth of the matter is that we mortals should be reminded from time to time of our own limitations. To live fully we must be cognizant of our limitations, the most significant of which is the scarcity and uncertain duration of time we are each granted. Failure to recognize this limitation and to live accordingly is one of the most tragic tendencies of mankind. We have a tendency to sacrifice and devalue the present in the false hope that there will always be a future in which to make amends. But the future does not belong to us. Contemplating death forces us to reorient ourselves towards the present moment, and to live life with a renewed sense of urgency.

When we contemplate the possibility of death, we should do it with moderation, like our exposure to the sun. Both are integral components of life but staring at either for too long only leads to debilitation — damaged eyes in the case of the sun and paralyzing anxiety in the case of death. Turning away completely from death, however, can be just as debilitating. For as the rays of the sun are needed to sustain life, periodic reflection on death seems necessary to imbue one’s life with a spark of urgency and an appreciation for the present that so many in the modern-day lack. Academy of ideas

How contemplating death could teach us how to manage our energy wisely
How contemplating death could teach us how to manage our energy wisely.Photo by onlyyouqj via

Contemplating death also forces us to better appreciate the value of the time we have and how we spend it.

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it”-Henry David Thoreau.

Life is finite. I only have one life. What’s happening after nobody knows. So, if I know that my life is finite, I want to be extremely clear where and towards whom I should expand my energy. The law of thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed it can only be transferred or transformed from one thing to another. If I have 10% of spare energy to allocate to someone and decide to give it to John, I have to know when I make this allocation that John is worthy of my time. If I give 10% of my energy to John, I have to know that he is going to do something good with it, because if I know that he is going to squander it, I will rather give it to someone else.

People and things are the biggest consumers of energy. Some people lift you up and give you energy. Other people suck a tremendous amount of energy from you. The greatest impetus to manage your energy is death. Far too many people waste a great deal of time on things that contribute little of positive value to their life — be it unhealthy relations, dead-end jobs, or destructive habits. Often, we know we need to change, to stop wasting our time, and to focus our efforts elsewhere, but we delay and justify our delays with the excuse that in the future conditions will be more ideal. Kind reminder: Life is finite and waiting for ideal conditions to do anything is a dangerous game to play.

When the Dalai Lama was asked in an interview, what surprises him the most; he offered an insightful response: Man, because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as he is never going to die, and then dies never really lived.

Periodically contemplating death can also improve our relationships with others. If we are more cognizant of our own mortality, we will also become more aware that the lives of everyone we care about hang by a similarly thin thread. Never knowing when the final time will be that we see someone can make us more appreciative of the times we do spend with them.

“Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of enjoyment.” Sigmund Fred

How contemplating death could help us with our legacy

According to Ernest Becker, to act in this world with relative composure, human beings should alleviate the fear of death by leaving a legacy after they are gone. The antidote to the terror of death is to live a life that is significant. If one’s legacy lives on, then death is not one’s final destiny. One can keep the fear of death at bay by feeling that one’s life has a significance that will live on after one’s death. Each person needs to be a heroic contributor to the destiny of man.

“What man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance. Man wants to know that his life has somehow counted. If not for himself, then at least in a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning.” Ernest Becker.

And this my dear friend, is your quest.

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As an author, I made it my Quest to write about anything that nourishes and educates the mind with a zest of philosophy, plenty of good vibes, and this little 'Je ne sais quoi'. You can never underestimate the power of storytelling. Stories teach us about life, about ourselves, and about others.


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