By Sarah Jeanne Browne—
“Man surprises me most about humanity. 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 results being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” ~Daila Lama
Betty White recently passed away just shy of turning 100. Her legacy was in laughter, love and standing up for the things she cared about such as animals. She said to see the positive in order to have a good life. When we pass, we want the world to think even if we are 99, it’s still too young to go. Her life is an example of how we should be living ours. See the positive and also the best in ourselves and others. We want people to remember us for the love we share. Living such a life takes thinking about the fact that we will die one day. In fact, it’s a great motivator to live in the moment.
Thinking about mortality doesn’t have to be morbid. It can help you reflect on meaning. Remembering that life is finite gives us perspective. When we look at its temporary nature, we have greater resolve to live in the now. We appreciate what we have and love life even if life hasn’t always been kind to us. I have a secret for you—no one gets out alive! We have to choose this life if we want to achieve anything with it.
When was the last time you took a breather from day to day stressors and really looked at the sweetness of life? The laughter of children, the stories your grandparents reminisce on, your favorite song you have on repeat all the time, that book you let your friend borrow and the excitement of sharing notes, the way nature gives you reverence and moves you in wonder, your first crush who you catch up with years later, that dog who always knew when you’d be home and waited expectedly at the door, that friend who comforted you when you had no one else to turn to, that test you thought you’d fail but you aced, that lullaby your own mother sang to you which you now sing to your baby and the way the sun always rises with absolute certainty after the darkest night.
Life can be unfair, but the goal is to find beauty in it. Seeing the beauty doesn’t mean walking away from suffering or the unpleasant. Actually, seeing the beauty in life is about facing what is and doing what you can to make it better. If you can’t find the good in a situation, be the good. When you open your eyes to the beauty around you, you not only learn how to live but find what to live for.
1) The Psychology of Facing Death
Those who have near death experiences have a transformation. When faced with death, they suddenly see the light- figuratively and literally. They start to see what they have done wrong, what they need to fix and who they must become. Post-traumatic growth happens when one faces a trauma and has a positive transformation. When they are faced with death, this transformation in post-traumatic growth may be even more dramatic. In one example, “Wren-Lewis, a psychologist who had an NDE after being poisoned, wrote that as a result of his NDE, he experienced a revelation that required a profound reorientation to life. He noted that the aftereffects of that experience echoed many of the features of post-traumatic growth, such as an enhanced appreciation for life, new skills in coping with difficulties, and feeling greater warmth toward others. Near-death experiencers’ (NDErs’) descriptions of their life changes after their experience parallel Janoff-Bulman’s 3 mechanisms of strength through suffering, psychological preparedness, and existential reevaluation.”
Dr. Steve Taylor wrote Out of the Darkness where he interviewed those who have had a terminal diagnosis or had a quick brush with death and were transformed in a powerful way. This often caused them to live in the present, have greater gratitude, perceive the positive in everyday life, become altruistic and release themselves from fear. The things they thought mattered before no longer matter. They have a better grasp of the big picture. They stop sweating the small stuff. They are relieved from worry and anxiety. According to Taylor, many are passively aware of death. They think about it but don’t really face it. There’s a difference between awareness of concept and the reality of death. Those facing it are gripped with a greater awareness that leads them to transcend fear. He recommends spending a few minutes a day thinking about your own death so you too can experience this transformation.
Hospice workers who help others transition to death experience their own type of transformation and reflections. They often think about death too and what this means for the living. They do not try to make sense out of the senseless though. Aldis Petriceks says about his own experience, “Serving those at the end of life is a truly humbling, yet life-giving endeavor. It is an exercise in faith—and raw, unfiltered humanness. Take that patient for example, weeping over her family and mortality. In that moment, a million platitudes and consolations for the woman swirled around my head. I only needed to pick one: ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ perhaps? Or maybe, ‘It’ll be alright in the end.’ But the humbling power of hospice work is powerful exactly because it does not allow for easy, dressed-up answers. When one enters the room of a dying stranger, there is no room for pretense. One is forced to courageously confront life’s awkward presentations.”
When you face death or someone you know is facing death, many questions will come up. The most common one being “Why?” Know that if you are comforting someone dying, you do not have to know this answer. You don’t have to know it for yourself either. Simply hold space for yourself and others. You don’t have to facilitate someone else’s transformation or pressure yourself for your own. It’s natural for fear and anxiety to arise. It does not stifle growth or change to have them.
2) Remind Yourself, “Wow, I’m Still Alive!”
Sandhguru, a popular mystic, says that each morning, wake up and remind yourself, “Wow, I’m still alive!” If you can, do this every moment. If anything, try to do it once an hour. A million people may not wake in the morning. 10 million people may be missing those who died. You have not lost anyone around you, and you are still alive. Celebrate this fact and wondrous things will happen to you.
Sandhguru says being conscious of your mortality will lead you to want to know the nature of things. Where do we go when we die? We think about this for a moment then get distracted. While we cannot know everything, we can use mortality to think about these big questions. We can lean into curiosity and uncertainty.
Lastly, he says that a type of awareness happens when you think about your mortality. You stop wasting time doing things that don’t matter to you and do things that do matter. You become mentally alert. The goal is to not live a half life. We want to be fully alive while we are living. We do things that aren’t important because we think we are immortal. Ask yourself, “Am I alive?” Then, “How alive?” When you think about death, you think about its inverse: life. Then you truly live.
3) Ask Yourself, “How Do I Want To Be Remembered?”
Take a mindful pause between each action and ask yourself, “How do I want to be remembered?” This helps you to reframe your reactions. Ask this question the next time you get into a fight and you want to fight fire with fire, when you are making a major life choice between what people want for you and what you really want or when you want to give up and stop trying at your goals.
Let it be your guiding point for your principles and purpose. It’s in these small moments or choices that you leave a legacy.
4) Change “Why Is This Happening To Me?” To “How Can I Use It For Good?”
This positive reframing helps you to get a brighter perspective. You can do a lot with a little. Take one positive thing you can find in a situation and use that. You can find resourcefulness and resilience when you look a little deeper.
Make the best of a situation because you know there’s a time limit. You can either stay bitter or get better. There’s no time to stay angry or resent life. You have to choose—how will you spend your time? You might learn a lesson, find forgiveness, rediscover your faith, try something new or make a deeper connection. As Emily Dickinson said, “If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.” Do one good thing with your time, and it will have been worth it.
5) Live Like You Are Dying
Living like you’re dying helps you to create a great life. It’s like that song, Live Like You Were Dying by Tim McGraw. Do things you’ve never done before. Tell someone you love them before it’s too late. Visit that old friend. Write that book. Get a pet. Help your neighbor. Choose to speak words of kindness rather than react in anger. Love yourself.
When you live this way, things become clearer. You no longer hold onto the past or things that do not serve you. Set yourself free to live the life you want. Give yourself permission to do the things that you most want to do. Take risks. Chase the things that matter most. Give back. Stand for what you believe in. Make a difference because this is the one life you have to do something great with your time.
There’s an urgency towards living your dreams and finding your direction when you know you’re going to die one day. When you decide to go for what you want, you stop fearing failure or even death. You live an authentic life.
6) Appreciate What You Have
You appreciate life more when you reflect on mortality because you know how fragile it is. You know the value of what you have and that it can be taken away. You know your own worth.
Appreciating life doesn’t mean you have to be grateful for each aspect of it. It just means you know what’s worth holding onto. According to Audrey Hepburn, “The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.”
Write a gratitude list once a day. Add things like, “I’m grateful I’m alive.” Or “I’m grateful for coffee in the morning while dealing with a child’s temper tantrums.” It can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. Put yourself on the list. Be thankful for you too and how far you’ve come! There’s no better time to love yourself than right now exactly as you are. It shouldn’t take thinking about mortality to be reminded of this. Happiness is the goal, not perfection. Happiness is loving what you have and still striving for more. There’s a security that comes from satisfaction. So start with appreciation, and you’ll have it all.
7) Be Mindful
What if you just stopped? Stopped to take it all in. Stopped to feel. Stopped to hold space for one another.
What if this moment provides you with exactly what you need? The fleetingness of it calls for total mindfulness and a new declaration of self. You aren’t your past, your problems, your worries or fears. You can let all of those go.
Focus on this moment only.
There are 4 truths here:
- This moment is all there is.
- This moment will never come again.
- You must face this moment.
- You must let this moment eventually go, so your holding on too tightly can be released.
When we are faced with uncertainty, it’s human nature to shrink back with fear. You ask, “Am I enough? Am I doing enough? What will happen to me? How will I get from Point A to Point B? Who will remember me?”
For this moment, put those questions and worries in an imaginary container for a containment exercise in mindfulness. For example, you can imagine a balloon with your stress inside it that you can let go. Resolve to come back to your worries at a later time or not at all. Release or remove the container. Imagine the balloon with your problems inside it floating far away until you can see it no more. It’s taking all your negative thoughts and feelings with it. Let go of the constant questioning. We don’t have to have the answers.
We don’t know what will happen next or what will lead to our eventual demise. We don’t know the gift of life until we truly start thinking about death. We must have reverence for the great mystery and let it play out as it will.