The Law of Death Denial
We don’t like to think about death, but we should. By reminding ourselves of our own mortality forces us to think more clearly about the future, wasting less time on things that don’t matter.
When I look back at the past and think of all the time I squandered in error and idleness, lacking the knowledge needed to live, when I think of how often I sinned against my heart and my soul, then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute could have been an eternity of happiness! If youth only knew! Now my life will change; now I will be reborn. Dear brother, I swear that I shall not lose hope. I will keep my soul pure and my heart open. I will be reborn for the better.
Flannery O’Connor was a novelist who discovered that she, like her father, had lupus. As her health deteriorated, her will-power seemed to increase. She spent the remaining days of her life writing and doing so under the most extreme forms of pain. Her admirers visited her, and instead of trying to make her feel better, it was Flannery who gave them advice and made them feel better. Flannery sensed something was deeply wrong with society and she sensed this in the town that she lived in. People seemed to be numb to life, they were complacent and materialistic.
She felt lonely in her final days, but she absorbed life more intensely. Like Dostoevsky when he thought he was going to be killed, he felt each moment amplified, the colors around him more vibrant, and the faces and voices of the people he saw more pronounced. Flannery savoured each moment she had with other people, and committed them to memory, so that she could recreate the richness of those experiences through her characters. Flannery died before the age of 40 but gave the world much to think about. Her novel Wise Blood was about faith in God and the meaning of life.
You may feel pity for people who have died young, but you shouldn’t. All of us will die, and it is sooner than you think. Even living to an old age is a tiny spec of time. And yet, many of us go through life on autopilot, repeating our mistakes, and acting as if we are going to live forever. We have relationships with people we don’t like and work in jobs we’re not passionate about, convincing ourselves that one day we will get what we want.
Yet it is all a delusion. Each moment is valuable, and we should live more urgently. Our perception of time, if we can manage to change it in our minds, can radically change our lives. If we imagined that we had only a day to complete a project, we would do something that would have taken us weeks or months.
By constraining your perception of how much future time you have, each day will bring you more energy and more accomplishments. You will exhaust yourself, but you will have no regrets, you will have lived a full life. Some people believe that since life is short, one should indulge in as many pleasures as possible, but this is short-sighted and foolish. There are many things you can do to help you forget about the thought of death, but these escapes are merely that – they are detours from reality and the truth. But you can only escape the truth for so long.
You cannot outsmart reality, eventually the deeds of your past will catch up to you. If you have spent too much time on pointless pleasures, then you will grow bitter and resentful of yourself for not living up to your potential. What seems pleasant in the moment will not be so in the future, when you are looking back at your life, and since you are always looking back at your life, it is wiser to make your days count, so that you have the fewest possible regrets.
Meditate on death, think about a deep void that you will fall into. Think about the millions of great people who have lived and died. Imagine the future generations of people that will come and go, think about your own life – to the time that you were born, imagine yourself passing through time until the moment of your death. Become comfortable with death, acknowledge its reality.
Let us rid death of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects. . . . It is uncertain where death awaits us; let us await it everywhere. Premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom. . . . He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint.Michel de Montaigne
If you’re interested in exploring the darker parts of human psychology that most people ignore, consider reading this short book The Dichotomy of the Self.