Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory (1931)
"And you run, and you run To catch up with the sun, but it's sinking Racing around to come up behind you again The sun is the same In a relative way, but you're older Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death"
- Pink Floyd, "Time" (1973)
Living 30,000 days on Earth is a lifetime of just over 82 years. You can think of 30,000 as a big number until you realize how quickly you could spend $30,000 or eat 30,000 calories. 30,000 days is just a tiny sliver of time, considering Earth has existed for several billion years already and will exist another billion more. Yet we rarely reflect on how our days are limited in this way. For how much energy we dedicate to envisioning our future - the person we will marry, the families we will start or raise, the impact we will leave on our communities - it makes us uncomfortable to confront the single event in our future that is guaranteed: our death.
Unfortunately, trying to avoid thinking about death or assuming we can hide from it some way is a surprisingly dangerous attitude to hold. In fact, paradoxically, exposure to death can leave us feeling more alive than ever.
Let me illustrate by telling the story of Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian writer who was sentenced to death in 1849. While anxiously waiting to be executed by firing squad in St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky spent his last living moments appreciating the unique architecture of the buildings outside and the vivid facial expressions of his fellow prisoners. Forced to stare death squarely in the eye, he realized how easily life could be taken for granted. Suddenly, at the last possible moment, a representative for the czar interrupted the execution: Dostoevsky's sentence would be changed to hard labor in Siberia. The young writer would live another day, and he experienced a sudden surge of appreciation for life, developed newfound empathy for others, and suddenly could observe the outside world more intensely than before.
Just like Dostoevsky, we too experience brushes with death that can lead to profound changes in how we experience life. Some of these experiences are more intense than others, but the common theme is that they always shake us from the rut of our normal routine. They provide us with some much-needed perspective, remind us that we're only mortal, and emphasize that our current "problems" are likely short-term and petty. For this reason, we should look out for these moments and embrace them as opportunities to cultivate a more appreciative and engaged perspective of life.
For example, think about the last time you were about to move away for a long time (a figurative "death") and experienced the pain of saying goodbye to former colleagues, friends, or family. You realized you must make the most of these last moments before you leave, and you were unusually excited to spend time with these individuals. Or, if you ever moved to a new place or traveled to a new country, you may have noticed how suddenly you became aware of the unfamiliar environment, and feeling like a reborn person, you experienced the new food, language, landscape, and people more intensely than back at home.
On a more severe level, experiencing the loss of a close friend or family member may have been another situation where your emotions were unusually engaged for a period of time. Their passing made you realize how death is beyond the reach of even the most advanced technologies. For a few days or weeks afterwards, there may have been random points throughout the day where you were suddenly racked with intense grief or nostalgia. From my own personal experience, I think of this period as flying a plane through a rainstorm. These events force us to turn off the autopilot of our normal routine and be fully engaged with our life, for better or worse. We are taking responsibility, during which we have the opportunity to mend our living relationships and come to better appreciate what we have.
Unfortunately, during many of our waking hours, we tend to devote too much of our attention inward, to our petty resentments or outlandish fantasies. We walk home from work absorbed in our own internal monologue, re-playing things we should've said or over-analyzing problems out of our own control. But when we encounter death, when we're forced to grab the wheel, we awaken from this daydream and suddenly find our emotions engaged outwards. Death, in any of its forms, has this power to pull us out of our own head and call up an old friend, finally kick a bad habit, or be more appreciative of what we have. But we don't need to rely on random brushes with death or changes in our life to ignite this change in attitude. If only we spend a little more of our day meditating on the inevitabilities of mortality, it is possible to direct more of our energy outward, leading us to experience the world more acutely than before.
According to author Robert Greene, here are some strategies helpful for moving toward this attitude:
Make the awareness visceral: Imagine if you died tomorrow. How would it happen? Where would it happen? Think about how, across the world, millions of people would carry on with their day, listening to their favorite music, eating their favorite food, drinking with their best friends, discussing brilliant ideas only human beings can comprehend. What would you give to come back and re-experience those little aspects of life?
Awaken to the shortness of life: The last time you completed a big project, did you make a plan and set a deadline? If not, wasn't it tempting to put off work until the distant future? Doesn't the pressure of a hard deadline really get you pounding the pavement or hitting the library to meet your goal? Remember, life is only 30,000 days. For some of us, there may only be 15,000 of those left. This should give you a sense of urgency. Think about this as your ultimate deadline. Will you take action to finally meet your goals, or will you procrastinate another day, until its your last?
See the mortality in everyone: A plague from a superbug could hit tomorrow. No one would be spared. Rich people, poor people, smart people, dumb people, attractive people, ugly people: it wouldn't matter. This thought should remind you that everyone is mortal, comprised of just flesh and bones, aging by the day. As Ryan Holiday relates, "the next time you feel yourself getting high and mighty - or conversely, feeling low and inferior - just remember, we all end up the same way." When you realize mortality is a common denominator for everyone, you rise above your contempt or resentment against others and are able to be more empathetic, a much-needed trait in today's increasingly self-absorbed society. The
Embrace all pain and adversity: It's inevitable you will face failures, illnesses, separations and other obstacles going forward, followed by death itself. You have two choices: let these challenges fester and ruin your life, or face them as strongly as possible and use them as an opportunity to get stronger. Whatever fate has in store, you embrace as happening for a reason. This gives you tremendous power and lessens your anxiety about what dangers lurk in the future. It's important to note that embracing all pain and adversity is a certain attitude that demands practice. This attitude won't immediately make your problems disappear, but it can make your problems more manageable as you try to convert a negative force into a positive one.
Open the mind to the Sublime: Earth is one of approximately 30 billion planets in our galaxy, orbiting the sun at over 67,000 miles per hour as it hurtles through the great unknown. Think about all of the celestial mechanics required for life to begin on Earth, and that somehow, this life evolved over billions of years to include species with consciousness. Even your own birth depended on the most outrageously improbable events, from the meeting of your parents and grandparents and so on. When you think about big questions like these, you are encountering the Sublime - concepts that are so overwhelming that they shake you to the core. Grappling with the Sublime, you can't help but realize how small and weak you really are in this world. Your habits and day-to-day concerns are washed away as you understand there are less restrictions on who you can be in this universe than you previously imagined. But the clock is ticking.
As you meditate on your own mortality, don't fall into the trap of thinking "life is short, so let me have as much fun as possible, whatever the cost, while it lasts." It's easy to get sucked into a hedonistic lifestyle of excessive parties, expensive clothes, aimless gossip, numbing social media and so on, especially when so many companies, making huge profits from these activities, advertise how great they are. These pleasures feel good in the moment, but they quickly become boring, and soon we're looking for bigger parties, more potent drugs, and more money to keep us satisfied. Instead, with the inevitability of death creating some urgency in our lives, we should focus on working towards our goals, improving relationships, and appreciating all of the uniquely human aspects of life. The key here is to take action, to get out of autopilot and grab the wheel. Reading and thinking about this only goes so far.
"Stop wandering about! You aren't likely to read your own notebooks, or ancient histories, or the anthologies you've collected to enjoy in your old age. Get busy with life's purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue - if you care for yourself at all - and do it while you can."
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.14
1) The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene
2) The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday