What can death teach us about how to live?
I watched a movie tonight called Gleason. It's about a former NFL player named Steve Gleason. Later in his life, he gets diagnosed with ALS. The doctor tells him that he has two to five years to live.
The documentary is mainly about his family—his wife Michel and his son Rivers. It also focuses on Steve’s relationship with his dad.
I am very interested in what people choose to do when they learn that they will die soon. We are all going to die. Some of us will die sooner than others. Most of the time we don't know how we will die or when we will die.
For me, I assume I'll die sometime around when I'm 70 or 80 years old. What I find interesting is that people often change how they are living when they find out that they will die.
To an extent, this makes practical sense. If you find out you only have a short time left to live, then it might make sense to do things sooner that you were planning to do later. Other things that you don’t have enough time to do just don't matter anymore. If you were saving for retirement, for example, that doesn't matter anymore.
Other than the practical stuff, people seem to change their views of life. Even if they don't change their views, they at least focus their attention on certain things that they realize are more important. Oftentimes this includes loving relationships.
I think death makes us honest about what we want out of life. When we assume we have plenty of time to live, we lie to ourselves or we listen to the lies that other people tell us. We pretend that we want more success or more stuff or more recognition or more fame or more wealth, but we don't really want any of those things. Death shows us what we really want.
I'd rather start living that way now. I don't want to wait for a doctor to tell me I have a terminal illness to start living my life in alignment with what's really important to me.
Is there an exercise to simulate death? I actually find it difficult as I sit here thinking about this to think of what's most important to me. It just doesn't seem viscerally clear. My mind gets in the way with all my future plans.
But what do I actually value in my heart? I'm afraid of loneliness, but loneliness seems to be based on the illusion of separateness. We're really not separate. I know this, but even though I know I'm not separate, I still feel separate. When I feel the least separate is when I'm with my girlfriend.
When I think about dying, I imagine it all being over—darkness, nothing, silence. If you imagine that this nothingness is what you're going into, then you start to realize what a gift this animated sensory world is. You don't want to waste your chance. What a waste it would be to not do what you really want to do. There's potential for pain and suffering, sure. But it seems to be worth the risk to just go for it.
What does it really mean to go for it? What are you trying to achieve by going for it? I think it's less about what you do when faced with death and more about how your perspective changes. You're just more grateful. You cherish the moments you have left. You cherish the loving relationships in your life. Maybe I don't need to change anything about my life. I just need to change my perspective.