If, like most of us, you are currently being battered left, right and centre by articles about how to avoid the January blues, or improve yourself through diets, new regimes or sobriety, here is a slightly different suggestion for you. Why not devote a bit of time to considering death?
I admit this does sound a little on the bleak side and your instinct may be to run for the hills (Christmas Fitbit strapped on, box fresh trainers laced up and ready to go). But before you go, consider this. Can engaging with our mortality help us find the beauty in our lives?
Many great thinkers, from philosophers to modern day writers, have written about the benefit of truly engaging with our greatest fear. Most of us don’t think about it at all, at least consciously. The philosopher Kierkegaard suggested that we all live under a suppressed fear of death, that our anxiety in the face of mortality is often displaced and directed into a fear of something else: ‘the nothing which is the object of dread becomes, as it were, more and more a something’. That ‘something’ could take all sorts of forms. From very healthy eating, excessive exercising or generally living a very risk adverse life, to staring death squarely in the face with extreme sports and get a buzz from defying it.
Apple founder, Steve Jobs, made a moving speech at Stamford University in 2005 about engaging with death. He said, ‘Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent’. He continues: ‘Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important’.
But is it possible to live so urgently and freely without a personal experience of a terminal illness or a near death situation? Existentialist psychotherapist Yalom thinks so. He says that while the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us. It’s quite simple: facing up to and thinking about death helps makes life seem precious. It leads us to live an authentic life.
So what can we do to usefully confront the fact of our mortality? A starting point might be to think about what you would leave behind. Would you be content with how you had spent your time? What are your feelings about the relationships in your life? Is anything important left unsaid, or an apology due? Perhaps you are wasting your time in an unhealthy relationship. You could also think about what truly brings you pleasure and meaning to your day to day existence.
Another area to think about is the place fear holds in your life. So many of us are stymied by our anxiety around failing or looking stupid. Exploring your feelings about this can really help reduce its hold and help you live more fully. Returning to Steve Jobs; ’remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart’.
It may be unrealistic to live each moment as if it were our last but perhaps 2017 can be about trying to find our own authentic path. Can we take risks by speaking from the heart? Can we prioritise what gives pleasure or feels most important to us? And most importantly, can we do all of this whilst holding in mind those we most love?