Most of us want to know that our life means something in the overall scheme of life. As children and adolescents we probably daydreamed about making a meaningful difference in the World. If we’re honest, mediocrity was a state of being to be avoided. If you ask a kid what she or he wants to become when they grow up, you’ll probably hear, firefighter, doctor, astronaut, athlete, or President.
We set the tone of our lives by feeling free to be ourselves and change things for the better. We are at our best when we leave the false comfort of conformity and stale tradition behind us. If we are lucky, we learn, early in life, that death can be our ally.
I was fortunate to have learned this lesson in a round about way. In a college creative writing class, one of our assignments was to write our own obituary. Our instructor suggested that we think about our greatest fear, besides death itself. How did we think our lives would actually turn out?
Did we actually follow through to cause progress in some way? Did we overcome some sort of barrier? If we were “socially anxious” or shy, were we reluctant to speak out and be ourselves because doing so would draw attention to us? Did we imagine society judging us, then rejecting and ostracising us. Would living the life we dreamed of be too risky? Would our obituary be compelling or mediocre? The question is not, “What is the meaning of life?” The question is, “What is the meaning of my life?”
I used to believe in the New Age version of reincarnation. I found it to be very comforting and a way to lessen my fear of death. During meditation, one morning, I realized the purpose of my belief was really to avoid the stark questions of death. It had become the ultimate tool in the service of procrastination. As long as I believed that I had even one more chance to live as a human being, it would be easy for me to put off the difficult tasks until that time.
Some 20 years ago, my guru taught his version of an old Buddhist parable. “Imagine there is only one life preserver ring that has been placed at random in one of the seas of the World. Somplace beneath those seas is exactly one tortoise swimming around. What is the probability of that one tortoise swimming to the surface and accidentally poking his head out of the water, inside the preserver ring, on its first try? That is the probability that one has of being born as a human being on this Earth. Each human life is precious beyond measure.” He taught that the chances of our being born as the person we turned out to be was probably several hundred trillions to one. Do not waste this chance.”
My guru was the second person to assign me the task of writing my own obituary. He then said to condense the essence of that obituary into an epitaph. The obit and epitaph can be serious or light-hearted. The most memorable and best epitaphs contain some sort of dark humor. I had one week to complete the task. When I had finished I was to not allow anyone else to read it but myself. It is unwise to share your ultimate goals with anyone until you are on your deathbed.
I thought about the people who live on the cusp of death every day. Firefighters, police, soldiers, marines, and sailors. There are others who live as athletes and public figures who risk public approval or disapproval at each turn. Death as a reality or a metaphor can happen instantly and easily. Even though I had not chosen to be a public servant or a sports hero, my life could vanish at any moment. We are all living on the cusp of death, be it from a bodily failure or an accident.
Many people might think these words are morbid and difficult to read. They really shouldn’t be thought of that way. These words are friendly nudges to help us redirect and reactivate our lives. They remind us that our fear of death must be greater than our fear of fully living.
Carlos Castaneda wrote something that haunts me. “The thing to do when you’re impatient is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death.” Think what you will about Castaneda, he did have some good life lessons. This sentence is one of his best.
How do you ask this pithy advice from your death? By writing or revising your own obituary, and in turn, your epitaph.