We think of death as merely the opposite of life and in a fundamental and temporal sense it is. But mortality is one of life’s key features – it defines it and gives it value. Ours, our loved ones, our dogs, all life. To exist as a living creature is to know – or at least sense – that life’s dark twin awaits. For humans, without the awareness of our tenuous existence there would be no meaning. Yet we want to live in ways that refuse acknowledgement of our mortality. Let’s not think about it, we say. It might go away if you don’t point at it. Yet when left unaddressed, such conditions can lead to bigger afflictions such as midlife crises, indulgence in too much plastic surgery and purchase of ridiculous cars.
The wise among us learn to live with the knowledge of mortality while not being consumed by it. The rest of us, if lucky, find such equanimity mostly when we are “over the hill” (i.e., the decade that comes after whichever one I find myself in). I’ve often thought, wisdom is the ability to hold two or more seemingly contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time, while perpetually working towards a fine(r) balance depending on context. A proper acknowledgement of mortality can help us reclaim our time, our life and relationships so we can focus on what gives us meaning. Maybe plastic surgery and fast cars can do that too; and so as long as we are being honest with ourselves, I say, go for it!
Do note that this is not any kind of pretense about having overcome such fears and faults. It’s just a rumination. Write to me if any of it makes any sense and most certainly if it doesn’t.
It is precisely the awareness of death that enables meaning in our lives. A life without end would be bereft of value, pointless, unbearable. Without death, time would have no meaning and procrastination has no value connotation. Life would just be an interminable, incessant drum beat of repetition without respite. There would be no need to work toward anything! It is the fact of mortality that assigns a finite sentence and consequently a sweet centering on our pursuits, our love, our ambitions and our experience of joy. That brings with it some sadness – not to be confused with depression – and a sense of focus. It is part of a whole.
It is also our inability to properly deal with our ultimate biological nature that makes us demand that ends – to stories, relationships, and of course to people’s lives – be unequivocally happy. No unhappy endings, no loose ends please, we insist. A happy end is an understandable demand, but what about a life’s meaning? When Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and even Kate Spade took their own lives, it was sad and shocking. That’s because we can reasonably surmise they had to have been in deep despair. How devastating for those who loved them and wished they could have helped. Grieving and mourning are not only legitimate but essential parts of healing.
Yet even in that grief, we could choose to remind ourselves that their deaths did not define these people — or us. Nor should their deaths take away from their lives, which were full, productive, defined by talent and ambition and meaningful. With their creations each of them enhanced many lives. They created something that did not exist before them. They loved many, had deep friendships and lived doing what they loved. A more befitting remembrance would be a celebration of their lives instead of an obsession over the nature of their deaths.
Our twin obsession/avoidance of mortality leads to other miseries. We seek closure when none is possible. We make departure for those who want to leave with dignity nearly impossible (especially in case of painfully afflicted people who want to be relieved of misery) and a life sentence for those who love them. It is often a fear of our own mortality that makes us do this.
Ironically, it is when we are over-the-hill-ish, we tend to be happier, more liberated and more in touch with our true natures. This is not a given of course, but if we mostly remain aligned with reality and maintain some semblance of self-awareness then freedom from distraction and minutiae can be our reward. Yet this is also the period when encounters with losses and deaths become more common. The body also delivers unwelcome signals almost daily. But perhaps it is these unpleasant reminders that heighten our awareness of the shortness of time.
So the best we can do is let our awareness of mortality sweeten our here and now. Dogs do this without contemplation (we think) of their mortality but we humans have some conquering to do. Many find solace in religion and that is fine too. But mostly, this is how and why hope becomes our instrument for traversing this doomed existence.
I write this meditation for and in September for this is the month of my father’s (and my dear existential twin, my sister’s) birthdays. This will be the first time we celebrate these precious birthdays after my father’s passing. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of him. His photo rests by my desk where his memory reminds me of his huge heart and blessings. But his passing has also made me oddly more and simultaneously less demanding of life, of time and of relationships — all of it in ways that I needed to be. His passing left me grieving but every day the memory of good times with him gets bigger than the grief. That’s how he would have liked it.
I am still perfecting the art of slowing down yet wasting no time, reducing my focus to fewer people and projects yet having infinite time for love and for learning. I am also reminded of this quote by Gandhi: Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. In this spirit of honoring life without denying our mortality, I present this ode to life, love and hope in this too short existence. It is for my father.
never asked any god to measure the darkness
no maps nor trails to count these paths
and when I make that final leap
it will be whence I came, just ashes and rocks
shaky impermanence one day will vanish
a temporary memory for those who follow
so will you and each who’s here today
even myths we embrace, all baubles hollow
behold skies, brooks, and beauty profound
tall pines, warm beaches, or nodding flowers
trees that lean out, embrace the sun
maddening beauty journeys on forever
few were promised gods and avatars
or only one who would be the end all
and they asked for allegiance and all your faith
for an outcome of peace before the final fall
yes, I will be gone, and so what?
the answers unshaken, always been the same
perhaps my echoes, my thoughts live on
just a fading memory or not even a name
but I gave my love when I lived as one
grew a garden, tended life, and shed a tear
lived with dignity, found in gratitude
every moment’s essence I held dear
if I made one life happy, one flower bloom
if I held a hand that felt safe in mine
if I soothed a soul filled with darkness, despair
such small victories made my journey divine
for I found the only god that I know
the best of our trials and travails of our days
the longest journeys, the harshest climbs
such unlikely heroes, for demons we slayed
it’s alone a wonder this time, this life
my consciousness alive to a deep awe
for all that’s in an accidental universe
that we came to be here and just now!
and the end will come and render life precious
immortality would abandon it without price
a life of hope, fire, learned grace
it’s yours! in you! here, now! in this life!