I believe I am going to die one day. I also know I have no idea how it’s going to happen, or when. I could die today. I didn’t always believe this in my heart; I experienced death theoretically, as something that happened to other people now, but to me…well, it wouldn’t happen for many, many decades, and then I would go peacefully in my sleep, after I’d said my good-byes and all my affairs were in order.
That changed in January of 2001 when one of my best friends died. His name was Cory and he was 33 and he died. 33 was my age. That’s how old I was.
No matter how sick and weary his mind and body became, it was impossible to imagine Cory without breath or laughter or movement. He was so like me, his death made me imagine my body and my mind without life. At first, this awareness made me fear death. But over time, it led me to care so much more about this life now, about how I treat people now. I suddenly knew that I didn’t want to make life more difficult for good people or for animals or for the world around me. To cause anything hardship…it seemed a waste of my time here.
Obviously, I can’t and don’t live with the awareness of my “impending death” all the time, that’s a sure buzzkill if ever there was one! But I think it pays to give it some mind now and then. In Buddhism, there is a meditation about death, about the impermanence of all we experience in this life. Meditating on death helped me recognize that none of my attachments–to my looks or my belongings or money or reputation—none of these will comfort me when I pass and none with prevent me from passing. To sit quietly without distractions and realize: “I may die today. I may die today,” soon enough becomes, “Damn, I may die today!” It’s both a sobering thought and a clarifying one.
Truly believing that I will die has enabled me to consider my actions in a new way, illuminated by the subconscious thought: I may die today! It is the motivating undercurrent of my life: Do I want today—possibly my last day on earth–to be filled with petty overreactions, or obsessing over my hair, or saying things to people that I instantly regret?
Or do I want to spend it spoiling my animals, doing work that encourages people and helps them to believe in themselves, sharing a pizza with my boyfriend, or advocating for someone who needs me? Yes, I do.
I know how I don’t want to spend my last day and since that day could very well be today, why risk it? To truly believe in my death, to know it in my heart and not just my mind, is how I honor my life and Cory’s life and the lives of those around me.
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