In 2011 a very good friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer and I spent a great deal of time with him as he was approaching death. It was shocking. I was totally unprepared for it, I had had Grandparents pass but the death of someone still so young seemed unthinkable even if in some way I knew it existed. I felt like I learned a lot of lessons at that time. I learned the nature of true love, the way his wife at the time sacrificed everything to be there in every way was a true manifestation of love. I learned that sometimes we can’t be who we want to be. I was in the room when he was given the diagnosis that he was terminal, I so wanted to remain strong for him but I couldn’t, it broke me down and for a long time I had a guilt that I wasn’t able to be stronger in that moment, but I was young, I was learning and I did the best that I could. I for a moment truly learned to value life itself, in seeing the light of life burn out in another you are suddenly aware of the miraculous blessing that just existence is, I saw nature and our world differently, it changed my perception forever. It also cracked me open in a permanent way, I feel more, I hurt more and I cry at stupid American sappy films more. I’m more human.
Death is something that touches all of us in our lives and usually a long time before we face our own end of life and yet its occurrence in conversation seems to be a source of great discomfort for many people. We are awkward and often unable to fully connect with those that are in the middle of grief and generally expect a level of repression to be able to interact in a normal way. I feel like this is a specifically western problem and this doesn’t seem to be true in other parts of the world in which death and the discussion of death is interwoven with daily life. I feel like the problem here is that people are so reluctant to face their own death or to even consider it as a possibility that when faced with it in others it provokes deep-seated un-addressed anxiety.
I feel like considering our own end is really important because I think on some level we have convinced ourselves that death isn’t waiting for us. In those moments whether we are questioning whether we should leave our unfulfilling job or if we should end an unhealthy relationship, do we ever remind ourselves that our time is finite, would our decisions be different if so? I think if we were able to truly keep the presence of death with us, that we would live more fulfilling lives.
I feel like by taking death out of the cultural conversation we deny ourselves a fundamental drive for living. Historically in Christianity you would often find the words ‘Memento Mori’ (remember that you will die) inscribed in pieces of art, religious teachers often had actual skulls on their desk to constantly remind them of their mortality. In parts of Indonesia the bodies of dead loved ones are often kept in the house for years before being buried. Even in many parts of Europe the reality of the death of animals for our food isn’t hidden. If you want ham in Spain you go to a market and get it sliced off a hanging pig leg. I much prefer this approach because it’s an honest reflection of reality. Our culture constantly denies the truth by distracting us from the fact that one day we will die. Think about the phrase that is a staple of our cultures philosophy of happiness ‘Carpe Diem’ (seize the day). This is only part of the original Latin phrase which was ‘carpe diem quam minimum credula postero (seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future). I think it is interesting that we have edited out the second part, which has a recognition that we need to seize the day because it could possibly be our last.
In cultures around the world death is part of the fabric of society. Relationships with old people are maintained so that the process of aging and dying are observed. In our attempt to shelter ourselves from our ultimate fate we often hide old people from view in entertainment but also in healthcare. We are obsessed with the notion that a longer life is a better life and in pursuing this cause a continuation of suffering for many people. I’m not suggesting that we have some sort of euthanisation of old people, quite the opposite. I believe that death should be a continuing conversation throughout your life so that when important decisions manifest, like ‘do you want to be resuscitated following a heart attack at 90?’ You can make an informed decision, one that isn’t based on a desperate fear of your own or of the family around you.
I think this is an incredibly sensitive area and I wouldn’t judge anyone else’s relationship with death but I do think the ability to really examine our own mortality and face it, even if not to come to peace with it, is a fundamental part of living well. #Death #philosophy #Carpediem #endoflife #lifestyle #Mementomori #livingwell