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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Does thinking about dying help you live?


Nobody really likes to think about death? But what if thinking about it can help you. Then it's worth thinking about.

I'm finishing up listening to Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs. At the point I'm at, Steve has pretty much gone through his storied life and now he has cancer and it's metastasized. He's still living full-tilt (as much he can, as his physical stamina is greatly diminished) but he's also thinking about his legacy, of what he'll leave behind, of his wife and kids.

I can imagine we'll all go through something similar.

But is there a way to use that knowledge of death now? Now, before we get the bad news from the doctor?

They say one of the benefits of owning a dog is that (with the dog's vastly shorter lifespan) it reminds us of our mortality. See, for me, thinking about dying changes my thinking entirely.

I remember this quote from a Buddhist text. It was:

All must one day die. He who knows this fact in him all strife is stilled. 

Isn't it the truth? Even listening to the Jobs bio when I got to the point where he was diagnosed with the terminal cancer I softened toward him. He was vulnerable and sad. Life's fleetingness was once again re-established in my mind.

Thinking about death helps me to focus on what's really important. It makes me kinder. It makes me less self-centered. It's like when there's a natural disaster. (And being from Illinois that usually means a gigantic blizzard.) The neighbors all come out and survey the scene. We might not hardly talk all year but now we're helping shovel each others cars out. We're making sure old Mrs. Hanson has enough groceries and is okay. Because we all suddenly realize our shared vulnerability, life becomes beautiful.

And that's the kind of life I want to live, that's the kind of world I want to live in. If thinking about death is going to help me do that, I'm all for it.