Don’t Wait ‘Till You Die

I have little patience for talk, talk, talk, and no action. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I am often reminding myself of my own mortality, and the awareness that I still take many things for granted… Or perhaps I just like to get stuff done and I don’t suffer procrastinators gladly. Who knows?

Some years ago now, a friend of mine got irritated when in conversation I brought up the Stoic practice of contemplating death – I’m sure other schools and communities used similar rituals – to remind oneself of both the fragility and gift of life. He got frustrated and interrupted the conversation. I guess for him I had just become another one of these annoying nutcases talking about death and playing with these grandiose ideas to look cool.

Whatever my friend’s problem was, the fact remains that looking at my own mortality, as scary as it may be sometimes, has numerous benefits. I have written about death before and you can read some of the ideas and insights I shared here, here and here – I recommend you take a look 🙂 . I do find the topic profound and useful, although I’ve got a lot more to learn and it doesn’t make the reality of death less challenging to deal with.

But here I want to relate death to another area which, as a coach, I very much cherish: ACTION.

This same friend was often postponing and procrastinating on his dreams. He did not even articulate his desires as dreams. He was simply getting by, living life as it came, by default. Not much ambition, not much drive. A What-s-the-point type of attitude. Every day looking the same. Flat line. Whenever I’d ask how he was doing, he would reply “fine”. The exact same “fine” that Simon Sinek describes in this interview on millenials. Slowly dying out of boredom. Resolved. Cynical. Living, but not really alive.

Not that I think it’s “bad” to live this way. Everyone can do as they please. But it’s clearly not the life I choose to lead, and given the line of work I have been called to do, I generally don’t want this for other people either. I want to achieve my goals. I want to create my dreams. Not just talk about them. I want to DO, and what better fuel for DOING than the wisdom that my time is finite?

Unfortunately, we often continue to pretend and act as if we’ll live forever and we’ll do that thing, “someday…”.

I speak to too many people who are continuously putting off what they say they want. And the tricky part is: they always have good reasons for it. We all do! Whenever I am not owning up and stepping up to a desire I have that I’m not creating, you can be certain that I’ve got a bunch of reasonable arguments to defend my pitiful lack of initiative in the direction I want. I am blind to the truth, and blind to my own blindness.

We ALWAYS find ways to rationalise our lack of self-leadership, our hiding, our playing small.

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind that you don’t pursue a desire you have – actually that’s not quite true because I know I love seeing my clients create what they set their mind to… But what I really do care about is when we bury our head in the sands of incongruity between what we say we want and what we actually do about it.

I don’t want people to feel “fine” in their life. I want them to feel extraordinary! Not always joyful perhaps, as life has its ups and downs, but at least inspired, meaning-rich, walking their journey! This is my mission, this is what makes me feel alive. I don’t know why, it just is.

Don’t wait ’till you die to get started on your dream. If you’ve got a chance to take a big step forward towards it, grab it. If a small one, step forth. Be bold and trust that things will work out. Because they do.

Don’t wait ’till you die to invest in yourself. There will be nothing left to invest in by then. YOU are your greatest asset, no doubt about it. The best time to act and stretch yourself is now. It’s the only time you ever get.

Don’t wait ’till you die to say what’s on your mind. To do what your heart calls you to do. To look people in the eyes and say “I love you”.

Please, don’t wait ’till you die.

What Death Taught Me About Life

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.

The Shadow of Life

Staring at the sun with our bare eyes is difficult if not impossible. The equivalent is true of death. It is hard to think about death and face it without blinking. Irvin D. Yalom has done it multiple times during decades of therapy practice and talked about it in a wonderful book. I won’t try and relay his message here: I could not possibly do him justice. I would rather you read the book which is beautifully written and deeply inspiring. Some of the things he said really stuck in my mind.

Each one of us has thought about death many times, whether in our daily life or in our dreams, whether because we lost someone close to us or because we heard friends going through difficult times. Death is the Shadow of Life. It underpins many of the things we as human beings do. Its omnipresence makes us move forwards. Kings and emperors built statues representing them to live through the centuries; politicians publish bills and laws named after them for posterity; writers and artists write books and create pieces of art to leave a trace of them in this world; parents have children because this is the most primitive way to access a form of immortality. We accumulate wealth to pay for medical treatment in our desperate attempt to escape death; we publish our lives online to create a parallel existence which lives independently from us, and ultimately will survive our physical body; the whole of society is cooperating in a war that humanity is leading against death. Do we really need to be so fearful?

Humans have created fictions that support them and help them get through this fear of death, present in all of us. Reincarnation, the afterlife, Heaven, Valhalla, all these are fictions which constitute the promise that what comes next will be better than what is now. Even if some specific actions are stated as necessary in order to access this “after”, undeniably each and every one of these fictions take away the responsibility to make THIS life as meaningful and fulfilled as it can be. Yes some fictions will require us to do good deeds, be virtuous and a whole lot of other great things, but they promise that the reward will come later. Why can we not enjoy the here and now and try to make it as rich and colourful as we can?

Yalom voices his beliefs which I share, about our existence and the fact that we have been thrown on this planet and in this life as a result of a random, imperfect evolutionary process; all there really is for us to do, is make the most of the existence we have been given. How attractive would it be to live a life of contentment and fulfilment today? How wonderful would it be to value our family, our friends, and simply be content by connecting with other human beings? How beautiful would it be to live our life as well as we possibly can, and welcome death knowing that we have fully lived? Throughout the centuries, philosophers have explored and debated about life and death and often arrived to the conclusion that death is only fearful to people who have not appreciated well enough the value of life. The question of the meaning of life, from Socrates to Nietzsche, found its answer in fulfilment. Fulfilment in THIS life.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating anyone engages into a life of hedonism and a pursuit of any and every pleasure possible. Actually, like anything else, too much dopamine (the chemical associated with the reward and pleasure centres in the brain) in your system can lead to quite dramatic health issues and paradoxically annihilate pleasure (addictions). Too much pleasure kills pleasure.

A lot of people fear death; this fear is intrinsically embedded in life, I think it comes with it. But often their fear takes the form of something else such as anger, stress, depression, panic attacks… Through his “existential therapy” approach, Yalom works to uncover, underlying these symptoms, what people actually fear, and this often turns out to be death itself. People fear disappearing forever and the nothingness that death brings to mind. Or they fear the meaninglessness of life and of their own existence. Or they fear never seeing any of their loved ones ever again. Or they fear the pain they are going to cause to people they love, and who love them. All these are true and on some level, valid things to fear. But alternatively, there are ways to look at death differently. Death can be seen as the same state of non-consciousness as the one we were into before birth: this is not that scary. We won’t miss our loved ones because we will have no consciousness of life. If we have lived fully and connected and shared with our loved ones and others, then death is not to be feared; we can even offer them a final gift in showing them how to face it. Of course they will grieve and mourn, but they will move on remembering this final lesson, which they can then pass on to others. They will remember all the great things that are to be remembered, until they themselves pass away.

Now what about the fear of the meaninglessness of life? I like Yalom’s liberating concept of “rippling”, which I have already alluded to above without mentioning it. We ripple through the people we have connected with in our life. I understand rippling as some sort of ethereal influence, a deep level impact. We have all influenced people in our lives, on some level, and the way these people behave or think as a result of our own impact is how we survive through time. We will never disappear fully because of the influence we had in other people’s lives, simply by connecting and sharing with them. We live on through the lessons they learned from us and the cherished memories they have of us, just like you live now through the lessons you learnt from others. We ripple through other humans beings. We continue to live through them. Rippling is our legacy; it is what makes our life meaningful.

Death is the Shadow of Life. So let’s step out of the shade and enjoy the sun while it’s up in the sky.