There are two undeniable facts about life: it will end for all of us, and we don’t know when it’s going to happen.
We know this, yet we conveniently and consistently forget it. Most of us dread to consider the question and implications of death, and we immerse ourselves in various spiritual or material pursuits; whatever will help us cope with our unavoidable fate. We often hear or say: “death is part of life”, well-meaning words aiming to help us deal with grief and loss. Words which attempt to make the process of dying, whether our own or that of someone dear to us, seem more natural. And to make things more difficult, death is unexpected; one can rarely prepare for it. And when one does know approximately when their life might end, the exact moment is ultimately unknown to all of us, always.
Recently, my grandfather passed away. It was a cold Winter morning. I learnt the unexpected news when my father called. It humbled me. Nature in full force. Something overpowering. We can explain what happens scientifically, but we still struggle to grasp why exactly it happens precisely when it does.
The moment the last flame of life flickers before vanishing…
This event would have me spend the next few weeks immersed in reflections around death, the process of dying and the transience of life. Ironically, I had just read Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and was in the process of reading Derren Brown’s masterpiece Happy, in which he explores philosophical truths that can help us to live (and die) well.
We talk about death being a part of life, as a way to make it more bearable. However, we would be well advised to consider instead that life is a part of death. This perspective is not only much more accurate, but it might also help us be more present to the transience of living. We have spent – and will spend – much more time in a conscious-less state than we will ever spend being conscious and awake. In some way, we have already spent an eternity in that space before we were born. Death is simply having us return to this trouble-less condition.
We could see death as the process through which we are merely “giving back” the people we were lucky enough to live with in the first place. This perspective is not always easy to hold in consciousness, but I find it is a useful and empowering practice.
Stoic philosopher Seneca encourages us to always be prepared to leave life, as we are not summoned according to our age. This echoes what we said initially: we don’t know when life will come to an end. He also has us realise that whichever way you look at it, what is past belongs to death; the only life that exists is the one happening right now, in the present, as I type these words. Already, now, the moment has passed and death holds it. By the time you actually read these words, many more moments will have been made to exist, and then given back to death. This is not sad, or hard, or unfair. It is a combination of the very nature of life itself and our perception of time. Of course, any moment can still “live” in our memory, even when its physical reality is gone. Just like a person’s memory continues to live through us, even when this person’s physical reality is gone.
If we love them, we have access to them, always.
We’ve got to remember that we are merely passing through, creating ripples, before coming to pass. Socrates, Caesar, Alexander the Great, Da Vinci, Descartes, Leibniz, Queen Victoria, Steve Jobs… Remember how many before you, and consider how many after you. It might be blunt to consider it this way, but this is how things are. It doesn’t matter how public and powerful, or how simple and discrete our lives are.
We should make the most of our time here, getting busy making the difference we want to make to those around us.
Let’s not be afraid to love and to say we do, and let’s not hold back from creating what we truly want to contribute to the world. We do not have the luxury to sit back and wait, or be held back by other people’s judgements. Because before we know it we’ll be gone, and those after us too. My grandfather helped me understand that.