Death is coming…Make friends with it.
Here’s an embarrassing story about the time I died: I’d been festering in a hospital bed for a few days after a kidney transplant that had so far been unsuccessful. As far I could tell at that time, the only immediate benefits to having been through surgery were the free morphine on tap and the throngs of solicitous relatives that came to visit every so often to feed me fruit or ice cream from the overpriced convenience store downstairs.
My body bruised and swollen, my head a cloud of broken thoughts and drug-induced non sequiturs, I had a drain in my side that served as a conduit for a constant stream of blood, puss, and ooze; all quite normal after a kidney transplant, but as the flow of the oozing increased tenfold, I began to suspect that there might be something wrong.
Being relatively late at night, there were only a few nurses on call. I remember I tried to get the attention of the nurse who was actually in charge of the patients at that time (let’s call him ‘Fred’) to inform him of my ever-increasing drainage issues; he ignored me, perhaps assuming that I was simply some simplistic, impetuous youth that was making a mountain out of a molehill. Over the course of half an hour or so, my supplications for attention escalated, as did his dismissals, eventually culminating in the nonchalant flourish of his hand and the curt assertion that he was ‘dealing with the patients who are really sick.’ Uh oh.
A few minutes after hearing this infamous utterance, still languishing in my hospital bed, I began to feel my temperature rise. I felt a kind of sinking sensation in my stomach. Clambering up out of the bed, unsure of where I was headed or why, I continued to feel hotter and hotter. Looking around the room at the patients who were really sick and the nurses that were dealing with them, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of panic. My heart started to pound within my chest harder, faster, and stronger than you can possibly imagine. I locked eyes with a patient in the opposite bed who had received a kidney from the same donor; the look of ineffable fear upon his face as he sensed something was happening to me made me panic even more.
Time stopped to the soundtrack of my beating heart smashing against my ribcage. I felt myself drifting down towards the floor but blacked out before I got there. A female nurse shouted my name. It was the last thing I heard before I died.
Now for the embarrassing part: After dying twice on an operating table, having the transplanted kidney removed, thirty-something blood transfusions, and a refreshing week-long slumber in ICU, I awoke with a flurry of excitement on an undulating bed as my mother and (ex)girlfriend looked upon me with tears in their eyes and I spouted a stream of gibberish that confirmed their apprehensions that I would be brain damaged upon return to the land of the living.
“F**k off”, I said to my poor old Mother, from my vantage point on the ceiling (thanks drugs!);“Go Green!”, I yelled at my bewildered Japanese girlfriend. How embarrassing to have been reduced to such a pitiful state! What a besmirching of my own reputation! What on earth would the people witnessing this ungodly scene think of me? And what the hell did ‘Go Green’ mean? Allow me to explain.
Whilst relaxing in my coma, I had a potent dream in which I played the role of a disembodied voice overlooking a dusty mountain, around which streamed, from bottom to top, a single-file procession of small, bug-like creatures. I can still see this image quite clearly when I think about it. In my disembodied state I was able to give these creatures instructions to somehow enter the real world (whatever that might be) and leave a sign for my girlfriend to follow so that we could be reunited in eternity. The agreement that I came to with these creatures was that this sign would be green; hence ‘Go Green’ being one of my first utterances upon resurrection.
As heart-warming as all that might be, I don’t think that this vision was anything more than my brain fighting to stay active whilst I was in the coma. I guess on a deeper level, it might demonstrate what my priorities were at the time (always was a sucker for romance), but I don’t think there was anything supernatural or unearthly taking place. In fact, I remember being kind of disappointed by the whole experience; no tunnels of light, no holy revelations, no astral projection. The whole experience demystified death for me completely: When I regained my senses, I had the utterly profound sensation that this is it; once you’re gone you’re gone. Since then I have been almost neurotically overawed by the fact that life is incredibly fragile and that we’re all clinging on to it by the skin of our teeth alone.
Though I like to think I’ve learned a lot of important lessons from this brush with death and the chain of events that led up to it, I think that the most important of these is an awareness of the imminence and inevitability of it all. It is there constantly, behind everything we do. I remember the surgeon who removed the transplanted kidney (which had burst at the seams) coming into see me upon waking in ICU. The look on his face when he saw that I was moving and communicating and, dare I say, living, was one of total shock and incredulousness; but, as absurd as it might sound, that’s how I since find myself looking at all kinds of people.
In the years since I ‘came back’, many people have described my survival as ‘miraculous’ and I guess in statistical terms it is pretty close to being so; but when I look around at all the people plodding and breathing about me, and when I consider all of the things that can go wrong in their lives, I think it’s pretty miraculous that any of us are here (actually, I don’t believe in ‘miracles’ — I just think that sometimes things happen and sometimes they don’t). So many people seem so jaded and so fed up of things these days, and I think part of that is because they don’t reflect on how the sands are inexorably falling through the hourglass and how thoroughly incredible it is to even be here in the first place.
We’re all on a limited contract, only some of us don’t realise it. The rest of this post is about death and how embracing it can change your life for the better.
How to make friends with death:
The clock is ticking; death makes time precious, whether you want it to be or not — Every so often you might hear an elderly person joking in a very English way on account of failing eyesight or a gammy, arthritic knee that they’re ‘falling to pieces’. The joke here of course is that this isn’t a joke; they are describing the literal decline of their bodies; the slow crumbling and ebbing away that will happen to all if us if we don’t somehow beat the clock and leave a young and good looking corpse.
This is why we say that ‘youth is wasted on the young’; just when you start to think you understand life and see it for what it is you begin to fall to pieces. It would be a tragedy if it happened to you alone, but seeing as though it happens to everybody we’ve built a social system around the idea of protecting ourselves from accident and injury, and then supporting one another on the inevitable decline into oblivion. If the ship must sink, at least we can sink together.
Unfortunately, to add further insult to injury, the laws of nature and biology have ensured that the standard version of this decline doesn’t involve a sudden but a gradual disappearance. Over the course of several decades our minds and bodies will fail whilst we can only sit helplessly watching. Perhaps you start struggling to read the small print in newspapers; perhaps you can’t remember what you had for breakfast this morning; eventually it will all be gone and there’s nothing you can do about it. Death is coming more surely than anything else in life.
But rejoice! It’s not all bad.
“Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.” — Epicurus
The main thing that distinguishes life from death as far as our minds and bodies are aware is a consciousness of the present moment. With the death of your brain so goes the present moment and thus consciousness itself, and if there is no consciousness there can be nothing to worry about. Death really is nothing to us in this sense; it only really affects those who are left behind. Try to remember what you thought or felt before you were born: Why should death be any more than this?
Don’t fear death but acknowledge that it is coming (and don’t escape into fantasies about being saved by technology unless it actually happens…). Try to reflect several times each day on the fact that all of this will be over soon. Use this realisation to motivate yourself to do the things that you truly want to be doing in life. Don’t sit vegetating on the couch watching the soaps unless that’s what you truly consider your higher calling to be. Get out there and work towards what you love and truly aspire to become. And don’t say you’re too tired. Soon you’ll be sleeping forever.
Try and follow the 80:20 rule so that you don’t burn out too soon. Aim to spend 80% of your time working on the things that are important to you (work, family, friends, etc) and 20% on the things that don’t matter quite as much (cleaning, vegetating, paying bills, etc). If your time is taken up by things that are meaningless to you then take incremental steps to change the situation. Quite likely, you’ll never reach the 80/20 ideal, but it doesn’t really matter. As long as you’re aiming for self-realisation and as long as your heart is honestly in it, you can rest assured (once and forever) that you’ve done what you can.
Death is the final deadline. Use it to kick-start yourself into action. Don’t end up on your deathbed looking back with rueful disappointment (click here to read a summary of the Five Regrets of the Dying).
Accepting death for what it is means that there is far less to fear — No matter how bad things might get, the fact that death looms on the horizon means that one day it will all be over. Nothing lasts forever, that includes you and your mental states. Take comfort in the fact that one day it will end.
Seeing things in this way, I believe, contributed to me overcoming my depression after the failed transplant. One of the worst things about being depressed is that you feel like it will last forever. Realising that it was guaranteed to be over one day helped me to see that depression is just a short-term problem with the weight of all eternity behind it. And once you can see the end in sight it’s much easier to start moving towards it.
I am definitely not saying here that you should use death to escape from your problems. Suicide is rarely the answer, no matter how much it may seem to be during times of distress. First of all, life is ultimately a joke and if you end it before your time is up you’re likely to miss out on the punchline. As if that wasn’t a compelling enough reason to stick around, I’m living proof that life can get better: Like many people with a chronic illness, I’ve been in a place where I seriously thought that ending it might be the best solution, but looking at myself now and how good I feel, I realise that I could have missed out on so much so easily. It’s scary how much sense it made at the time but how much I would’ve missed out on if I’d gone through with it.
Disclaimer — Just to face the ‘brutal reality’ of the situation: In an uncaring and indifferent universe, there is no theoretical or practical guarantee that things will get better. It’s quite possible that they will get worse. My personal belief here is that, if this is it, and that once you’re gone you’re gone, then hanging on for another shot at happiness, no matter how fleeting in the scheme of things as a whole, is the best possible option for anybody. There’s always hope (until there really isn’t).
Death allows you to switch from a transactional to relational mind-set; it allows you to be more compassionate towards the other temporary arrangements of matter that surround you — There’s a lot of talk these days about how people place a lot of emphasis on being individuals, about how they distinguish themselves with the products that they buy or the colour that they dye their hair, but that somehow this individuality is superficial. Really, many say, we’re just like ants, indistinguishable from one another, tramping about the high street with our shopping bags under our arms, getting involved in the same complaints and conversations about the same weather, being the same senseless sheep that follow the crowd.
In my opinion, this is the attitude of people that take one another for granted because they express a kind of wilful ignorance of the fugacity of those around them. We take people for granted because we think that they will be in our lives forever, but when we stop to consider once in a while the fact that this simply isn’t the case, we can lead ourselves to be more compassionate and interested towards them. We can find ourselves digging a little deeper than the surface complaints and superficialities, using our precious time to connect with one another.
As with the previous point about the 80:20 rule, this doesn’t mean that you should, or that it’s even possible, to spend all your time with others indulging in deep, soul searching conversations, but it does mean that you should put things in perspective. Make an active and conscious effort to find out the stories of the important people in your life whilst you still can (especially older friends and relatives); use the time that you have together to create good memories with the people that you love.
Appreciating the futile ephemerality of it all helps you to forgive people. Disagreement is a natural and unavoidable part of life and something that you should prepare for. People will hurt you and you will hurt them. Try to forgive before it’s too late; clinging on to a grudge will only cause you anguish in the long-term. Remember, just because you forgive doesn’t mean you have to forget.
We’re all busy these days, working, trying to get places, playing with Twitter, and this is quite normal. But, before it’s too late, learn to make time for the people that make life worth living in the first place.
Disclaimer: It’s quite likely that you’re caught in a vicious game with somebody in your life that involves a constant cycle of reconciliation and inevitable altercation. I have a theory that this is why so many people seek and are given forgiveness on their deathbeds: if one party wasn’t about to pop off the reconciliation would inevitably be short-lived. As morbid as this may seem, if this is the only way you can forgive and reconcile then do it. Time is not just precious; you have to be selective too.
Death connects you to your generation — In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker talks about the concept of ‘Immortality Projects’, briefly defined here as a lifework we may dedicate ourselves to so that we can survive in memory amongst future generations. We may actively choose to do this or do it on a subconscious level, but either way the fact remains that the only chance we have of surviving death (as far as we currently know), is to ‘live’ in the memories of those left behind.
All things being equal, the Immortality Project in this sense can be seen as quite an individualistic way of looking at things. Considering the lives of the billions who have died before us, it is only a very small percentage of human beings that continue to have a lasting impact on the way that we live and do things, and many of these are only known in name by a relatively small number of people.
As depressing as it may initially seem, most of us will be forgotten eventually, even the majority of today’s celebrities and other notable individuals. We will be remembered by our immediate family members for a while and maybe the offspring of offspring, but unless we have changed the world to the umpteenth degree (for better or worse), we will ultimately be lost to the quicksand of time.
Assuming that the species doesn’t die out any time soon, you will not be remembered as an individual but as a tiny, unnamed part of a generation. If you’re lucky they might label you collectively with some catchy, buzzworthy title; if not your self-identity will be lost to the numbers of your decade or century, and everything you ever did will be effaced from the great book of human endeavours. To be honest it doesn’t really matter.
Why is this uplifting news? It probably isn’t for many people. Perhaps, though, we can give this particularly dark rain cloud a silver lining by allowing it to help us see that we are more connected than we sometimes feel we are. Though we see ourselves as individuals, which we of course are, the fact is that we share far more things about life and death with those around us than we sometimes realise. Look around the train station on your daily commute tomorrow morning, look at the dour faces in the steamed up windows of the cars sharing the traffic jam with you. Everybody you see will most likely be out of the picture a hundred years from now.
The only real question is what do we want to leave behind?
I’m sharing all the deadly stuff on my email list:
Check out Personal Revolutions: A Short Course in Realness for more on this topic.