The other day, I was playing at the park with my little boy Joey, and I saw a gentleman sitting in the sun reading what appeared to be a very interesting book on philosophy. I approached him and inquired about the material in which he was so studiously engaged. We struck up a conversation and I learned that the man was 85 years old, still seeming to be fully active and immersed in what brings him life and stimulation. A few weeks previous, I was having coffee with my neighbor who is 75 years old, a retired engineer, accomplished physicist and no less a family man. He confided in me that he could die tomorrow and be completely happy and content with what he had actualized in his life. These two encounters made me wonder increasingly about how I myself can achieve that level of acceptance, peace and vitality even when the longevity of my life is not assured. When I consider my goals and dreams, I am comforted by the idea that I likely have a few more decades in which I can realize my life’s potential and enjoy the comfort of my loved ones and treasured interests. But what concerns me is the inevitable point at which I can no longer gaze into the future with assuredness–when I am unable to rely upon the supply of years that are incumbent upon me. I wonder how I will reconcile my own death and will I ever reach the point where I no longer fear death but welcome its embrace?
This is a question that we all must face, and for this reason I share this struggle with my readers. Death is one of the few arenas in which all people have complete mutuality, and yet it is something that most of us in American culture avoid discussing or pondering. Overcoming the fear that accompanies uncertainty is an endeavor that we all must face. Yet so often, if one spends undue time thinking and conversing about death, he is labeled as “morbid” or “macabre”. How can we come to terms with the end of life if we don’t explore it with open-minded curiosity and fluid discussion?
One of the reasons why many of us fear death is because we know so little about the process. Even near death experiences are disputed by science as being the byproduct of chemical mechanisms, so we dismiss any spiritual meaning imparted by people who have come close to the abyss. Pursuant to our lack of empirical acumen on the topic, we often react to death with angst and unease, which is routine for humans throughout history. Just like in the 1400’s when most sailors wouldn’t venture past the known map for fear that the world would end in a cliff or an incursion of sea monsters would flounder their ship, so too is death terrifying partly because it is the great unknown.
The psychological process of dying is somewhat better understood. Erik Erickson describes phases of life ending in death, which to him involves negotiating Ego Integrity vs. Despair. Essentially, during our final years, a person slows down in productivity, comes to terms with what has been achieved and what will never be achieved, and is able to see life as well-lived even in the absence of the promise of future years. Erikson contends that if a person enters this phase of living with guilt and disappointment, then despair results. However, if a person achieves wisdom, a sense of acceptance and an embracing of life’s course and events, then a person has ego integrity without fear. This philosophy leads me to conclude that to reconcile death means reconciling life.
The question is, what is the process of this reconciliation and how do we pursue it with intentionality? Although I don’t fully know the answer to this question, I do know that it is never too early to start the journey of coming to terms with one’s mortality. The assurance of longevity is an illusion for all of us, and at any point our forthcoming timeline can be abruptly halted. We also need to consider the beliefs and perspectives that either expedite our stunt our acceptance of death. Many of us rely upon religious and spiritual beliefs to reassure ourselves that the soul is eternal. Nevertheless, no one believes in life everlasting, at least in the terrestrial sense that is the composite of all we know. No matter what we envision waits for us on the other side (or whether another side exists at all), death certainly means a complete redefining of one’s existence. In my experience, people naturally fear change and we most fear that which is unknown–death is both.
Perhaps the embracing of death means being more grateful for what one has and pining less after what one could have. It means letting go of the “somedays” and living in the now. It means seeing every day as a gift filled with opportunity and wonder, bypassing the frustrations, drudgery and resistances that prevent us from grasping our moments wholeheartedly. We must be honest with ourselves that more time is often not what is required to live well–what is required is more intentionality with which one lives. Only when we can reconcile the means by which life can be best lived is reconciling death a possibility. Coming to terms with life and letting go of all that blocks genuine living, to me, is the means by which we come to terms with all that living really means. Life is a fleeting and transient endowment that is too precious to give over to the caustic forces that erode living. In my journey, I realize with irony, that acceptance of death happens only when I can, agilely and willfully, prevent that which degrades my pursuit of meaningful and aligned living. From the cradle to the grave, life is but a succession of breaths. Be present and jealously defend each breath, and death will be reconciled with limber requital.