Living Like You Are About to DieDecember 06, 2018
“Man lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived” - Dalai Lama
Ever wonder how your behaviour would change if you knew you were about to die? Over the holidays, I was having lunch with a friend who had recently undergone and survived an emergency surgery procedure. Without it, his prospects for survival would have been 50/50. I asked him if he now saw the world differently. I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he felt more at peace and a stronger sense of love. He cared more for the welfare of others and felt the need to help when he saw someone in need. In short, he seemed happy.
We have all heard the stories about people who have had near-death experiences or from those that are terminally ill. Their view of the world changes. They seem to care less about ego or material things and more about love and compassion. It’s a given, that we all know we are going to die. The trouble is we don’t believe it until it is staring us in the face. Sometimes, I wonder if the world would be a better place if we took the time to think about our inevitable expiration more often. Steve Jobs nailed it when he said:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon, is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered when making the big choices in life.”
Choosing how to live a beautiful life is something that is available to most of us, and yet, most of us tend to focus our attention on the things that bring us the least reward and satisfaction. Greed, fear and hate are a few of the most common afflictions that consume us. Ironically, they are also the first things to evaporate when we are suddenly faced with death.
So, why do we allow ourselves to get so easily caught up in the things that don’t actually make us happy and forgo the things that do? It’s easy to lose yourself in the drama of life, especially if you are rich or powerful. I always found Augustus Caesar (one of the most successful Roman Emperors) last words quite telling;
“Since I’ve played my part well, all clap your hands as I exit” - Augustus Caesar
He was pointing out the irony in all the play acting and regal authority he took on as emperor at that final moment when he was succumbing to the ultimate human frailty. No matter if you are a pauper or a king, it all goes away in the end. With greed, fear and hate growing exponentially, I wish we could find a way to remind people in positions of wealth and power of their immortality. I wonder what would happen if stingy billionaires and careless leaders and wanna-be leaders volunteered to be flat-lined for a few minutes. Just long enough to say a quick hello to the other side. Would that be enough to make them stop and think?
I have talked about the futility of greed in the past. How it’s silly to spend a lifetime collecting material wealth only to end up dead, as we all inevitably do. Seems like a lot of work for nothing. But even more damaging is wasting your life hating others. Hate consumes us and more often than not, it is a useless and misplaced emotion. We work ourselves up into a frenzy over misunderstandings, presumptions and fear, that in most cases we eventually get over or wonder why we ever felt in the first place. I find it revealing that we often hear of former enemies shaking hands many years after a conflict. Vietnamese and Americans, Tutsi and Hutus, etc. It makes one wonder why they couldn’t find a way to accept their common humanity earlier and thus have avoided all the needless suffering.
Hate also crowds out our ability to do positive things. Did you know that on the average day, the human brain processes approximately 60,000 thoughts? And did you know that on the following day 90 percent of the thoughts processed are the same as the day before. So, it stands to reason, that if your brain is consumed with hate, there is very little space left for positive thinking. You end up wallowing in a pool of negativity. Is that any way to live your life?
The other emotion we need to be cognizant of is fear. Fear of certain things can be useful, but so much of what we fear is quite useless. Fear of the unknown is one of our most common afflictions. We fear what we don’t know or what is unfamiliar to us. We usually discover how silly it was that we feared something only once we have confronted it. Like children who are afraid of the dark or what may be lurking underneath their beds. It’s only when their curiosity prompts them to explore, that they see there was never a boogeyman and they may even get lucky and find that lost action figure they had been searching for. Unfortunately, for many, fear of the unfamiliar begets hate.
For instance, why are some people from the West so scared of Muslims? It is completely understandable that the horrific actions of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda make us angry or even fearful, but it is wrong to ascribe the hateful ideology of those few to an entire religion. They may have different customs, pray to a different God or wear different clothing, but we too have customs that seem strange to others. I would imagine that some of our Christian rituals we perform in churches, or how some of our women dress scantily or how we can abuse alcohol, may seem just as alien to them. But the reality is we are all similar.
People of the Muslim faith currently account for the majority of refugees migrating to the West. They work hard to provide for the families, they send their kids to school, they celebrate life and believe in goodness. Their mothers grieve when conflict robs them of their loved ones, just like the mothers of our fallen. And when they are landing on our shores to escape war, as so many refugees are doing today, they do it to save their children, not to cause harm to anyone. If we would only take the time to know them and understand them, like the many western volunteers and folks from the International Rescue Committee are doing to help the refugees. It seems to me like that is a better option than remaining ignorant and spewing vitriol.
Dear Rich People: why wait until you are at death’s door to start thinking with clarity about love and compassion? Act now, avoid the rush. To those that spend life fearing and hating others, why waste your life? Those are heavy burdens that achieve nothing except to sap happiness from your soul. And to others, why spend a lifetime collecting “things” that mean nothing when you inevitably go? Instead try to detach yourself from material things and use what you have to bring happiness to others. And lastly, why be leery of the unknown when it’s so easy to discover the commonality in our humanity. It’s much more productive to explore the differences.