Death as a Teacher

Let’s face it, human life is so very fragile and precious, isn’t it? Life and death are these symbolic, driving forces that underscore and overarch every single thing we ever do.

We are born and a cosmic clock starts ticking. We won’t be humans forever.

In fact, human babies are some of the most defenseless on the planet. We have risen to the top of the food chain with our weapons and technology, but out in the wild we are not so intimidating to most animals, are we? No claws, sharp teeth, or thick fur. No natural defense mechanisms. Just soft flesh and an oversized brain that eventually enable us to build powerful weapons and high walls.

Our hearts beat 100,000 times a day.  We take approximately 20,000 breaths a day. But we don’t even think about it most of the time.

We have so many medical advances, and we’re living longer and longer, but there are still an almost limitless amount of ways our lives can come to a fast or slow end. At any moment, our hard-working little hearts can slow, and then quietly stop beating. Here one day and gone the next.

Like you, I’m sure, I’ve seen so much death in various forms. It’s even sensationalized on TV and in the media. I lost my sweet mother to breast cancer. During my deployment to Iraq, my Brigade lost over 100 people. There were times I wasn’t so sure I was going to make it home myself. I’ve lost old high school friends to drugs. One of the very best friends I ever had recently passed away too soon, leaving his wife and daughter behind. Military personnel are still fighting and being killed in the Middle East. Veterans are taking their own lives at the rate of one every 65 seconds.

It’s all got me thinking about life and death. I mean, what are we supposed to do with this information?

Walk around worrying that the world is going to end, that we’re going to devastate the planet beyond all repair, that nuclear war will radiate and shorten our future? Give up hope? Avoid relationships? Desensitize ourselves to the pain of loss or the dear of death?

I don’t think so.

I think we can can use the absolute certainty of our death to inspire us to make the most out of our life.

Every time we lose a dear friend or loved one, we can let the pain flow through us, breathe into that feeling of emptiness, and then close our eyes and breathe again and consider how precious and fragile life is. How our soft invisible breath sustains us without complaint, and how we are lucky to have 20,000 more breaths today.

Every time we hear about some senseless crime or killing, we can work through the natural anger by seeking compassion and gratitude that we are still alive and have the amazing capacity to feel that anger, to feel whatever it is we feel.

One of my favorite books is Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul.  I think the chapter entitled “Contemplating Death,” and the whole book for that matter, should be required reading for the human race.

I found the book at the right time in my own journey, and maybe this short excerpt about death will get your attention as well:

Let’s say you’re living your life without the thought of death, and the Angel of Death comes to you and says “Come on, it’s time to go.”

You say, “But no. You’re supposed to give me a warning so I can decide what I want to do with my last week. I’m supposed to get one more week.”

Do you know what Death will say to you? He’ll say, “My God! I gave you fifty-two weeks this past year alone. And look at all the other weeks I’ve given you. Why would you need one more? What did you do with all of those?”

If asked that, what are you going to say? How will you answer? “I wasn’t paying attention… I didn’t think it mattered.” That’s a pretty amazing thing to say about your life…

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One day your friends might post RIP on your Facebook page and share their photos and memories. They will celebrate your life. It will be both sad and beautiful, but the reality is that it could be tomorrow. Are you taking it for granted that you won’t be leaving this life, your family, your circle of friends, or your workplace, sooner than you might think?

So whether you’re having dinner with your family, or earning money, or skydiving, or just watching TV, be mindful of those billions of beating hearts and quiet breaths all around you – on the surface of the planet, or suspended above the ground in countless buildings, or flying up there in an aircraft, or living on an international space station, or gliding in a submarine like a blue whale thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean.

Michael Singer brings up a great point: How differently would you treat family, friends, strangers, and even yourself if you actually knew you were going to die in a week, or even a day? I encourage you to take some time out today and really ask yourself this question.

The odds are that the next conversation you have after reading this, or the next action you take in life, will not be your last. Your commute is going to go just fine, as it always does. But someone’s commute won’t go so smoothly, and a cosmic clock will stop ticking, and a plate of food will be left on the dinner table until a family returns from the hospital in the middle of the night.

Think about all those you’ve lost. Did they know how death was coming and exactly when?

The next person that walks up to you after you read this, whether it’s a close family member or a complete stranger, look at him or her and think “What if I knew this was my last day on earth?” What would I do, say, think or feel differently?

With that kind of perspective, you just might want to be kinder, more compassionate, more forgiving, more interested and engaged, and less serious about the trivial things we get so caught up in.

Now tell me, why don’t we live that way all the time? Why can’t we soften our hearts, communicate more openly, and appreciate what we’ve got?

I say we can.

Here in the 21st century, the information age, the new millennium, why not treat yourself and others as if this thing called life was a precious, temporary, magical and mysterious thing?

Why not strive to enjoy it and each other as much as possible?

Like just being here on planet earth is the greatest gift you’ve ever been given?

Because it is, my friends.

It really is.

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