How Thoughts on Death Should Change Us

thoughts on death

 

We drove to where the wake was held. We were laughing upon getting there. But as we got out of the car, we felt the gloom that was in the air. “We’re here,” I sighed.

Someone’s passed away again. There have been two deaths within this year, I thought.

While we were staying on the final night, listening to the eulogy and talking to friends, it hit me just how huge the impact of the idea of death on one’s life can be. Thoughts on death ensued in my head.

It’s as if it was a revelation, considering that I’ve been living on earth for quite a while now. Sometimes I wonder whether I can truly consider myself mature already.

I’ve been reading about death in the past couple of months, too. It’s not that I’m thinking about my death or something … I just found yet again the enlightenment in knowing that one day, even some 70 years from now, everyone’s still going to die.

Almost nobody likes talking about death.

Well, do you? Have you recently had a talk with someone about it? Can you liken the topic to what you would consider a “real” one?

Nobody … well, almost nobody … would ever want to talk about it. There are so many other things we could consider for discussion instead … things that could actually help.

Anxiety is a common cause (and effect) why most people don’t want to talk about death. Is it simply a case of not being that open-minded? Because death is the last thing we’d rather talk about; it’s taboo.

However, there are actually places in which they talk about nothing else but death, over tea and cake: death cafes. They’ve recently attracted worldwide attention for initiating talking about something that’s going to happen anyway, which is, yup, death.

What strikes me the most is how “normal” it is to talk about death in such places. However, discussions aren’t supposed to be sad, necessarily; their objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

Everybody should have thoughts on death.

The person who died was a friend of my parents. I realize I’m getting older and older whenever I hear about such deaths—from my parents’ generation.

At her wake, I saw faces from different generations: her friends who are basically her age, their kids who are basically my age, and the grandkids.

All of a sudden, I started to think about the things I really like doing, and the things I don’t. Then about the people I want to intimately spend good days with, and those I don’t.

The idea of death hits me hard: it reminds me that I’ve always been aware of death; I just don’t bring it to light, only during wakes.

An article published on The Atlantic discusses some fascinating points about such thought process.

We can be generally grateful in every moment if we know the value of death—that it’s going to happen one day. Thankfulness is a choice we can make instead of helplessly getting anxious about or fearful of death. It’s like choosing between two paths that we know have their own scenes and obstacles but will end up at the same exit.

Fortunately, the idea of death reminds us to take care of ourselves. Studies show that even though we typically avoid thinking about death, we’d feel an itch to eat better or hit the gym after being reminded about it. But it’s all just a reminder; whether or not we follow through is another story. Perhaps thoughts about taking care of ourselves are yet another alibi to simply push thoughts on death aside.

However, the idea of death can strike us in a more profound way. Research shows that it urges us to uphold our values. We’ll tend to do what we think is right, but on the flip side, we’ll also want punishment observed with “transgressors” that violate our values. This is particularly felt if we belong to specific groups that thrive for specific purposes.

But all in all, thoughts on death seem to favor positive impact. This is one of the main reasons the elderly are more mindful than everyone else. They are more selective in choosing who they spend time with. They’re also more forgiving and caring about others.

old guys chill
(Image: Mario Mancuso)

What would you do if you’re going to die next month?

Ah, isn’t that a clichéd question? Rhetorical?

But it’s one we forget most of the time.

I know it’s a powerful question, specially now that the thought got me, but its power tends to wither shortly after, because just like everybody else, I simply don’t want to think about it.

For instance, I have dreams to travel—to become a digital nomad even, even though at this point I can’t really tell whether I want the lifestyle. But for now it’s among my “top dreams” in every sense of that weird term. I don’t really hanker after material possessions (especially if they don’t last long), but I want to travel consistently.

So enter the proverbial question: If death is around the corner, what should I be doing right now?

It’s a simple question that may not make sense until you put it into the context of your life. After all, it’s about choosing the right questions to ask, and the right problems to solve. We can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything.

In any case, whatever situation you are in, however your life looks like, ask yourself that question.

But before you start making your bucket list, remember this:

Always work on your self-esteem.

Self-esteem is one of the first qualities we have to develop in order to take on bigger things. It kind of makes or breaks us. Studies have shown its role on one’s wellbeing and happiness.

Take a look at these two studies.

The first one, published on The Journal of Consumer Affairs, shows that compulsive shoppers reminded about death tend to buy more because buying, to them, is part of their identity and contributes a lot to their self-esteem.

The second, published by the Graduate School of Stanford Business, shows that people also reminded about death lean to achieve more power. This is behind the principle that power improves self-esteem. Also, if we have more power, we feel safer from harm.

Why these studies?

Let’s go back to the question: What would you do if you’re going to die soon?

The best answer: Discover the things you love doing and those that boost your self-esteem.

Thoughts on death draw us to uphold our views about the world and life. These are the same views that influence our self-esteem.

In effect, self-esteem plays two big roles in our lives. It becomes something we must work on but at the same time achieve, constantly. In other words, we need a healthy dose of self-esteem to do anything we want in life, but we also need to do things that bolster it.

Discover and uphold your own values. We are all going to die anyway.

There’s a reason we meet all the people in our lives. Why we are in a particular place. What tasks we are able to do.

We find meaning, the famous “purpose” we’ve been hearing a lot about. We subconsciously look for it every time. We believe we’re part of something that’s bigger than us.

Because of that, we discover our own values. We may learn and copy them from others, or make mishmash. But we develop values that are unique to us. They make up who we are.

While thoughts on death draw us to our core values, check your values from time to time and decide which of those you’re going to uphold forever, and ditch.

Do you complain most of the time? Do you blame others for your current circumstances? Do you think your life’s already written in someone else’s book?

On the other hand, do you know what makes you happy that you’d do it for the rest of your life? Have you already identified the things—or people—that distract you and give you the short-term pleasures but make you miserable in the long run? Do you exhibit a no-bullshit-no-excuse mindset in the face of obstacles and adversities?

Your answers to the sample questions above would depend on your values. Similar questions can be found in the other areas of your life such as travel, family, or work. They’ll overlap across the areas because, after all, your values make you.

It then becomes a matter of which values you choose to uphold or not.

And it pays to be curious and get educated.

If you want to be successful, think about death. If you want to remain happy, think about death. If you want to uncover the meaningful things you could be taking for granted, think about death.

Life is short. The realization gets stronger and stronger the freaking older I get. Putting it another way, life is scarce—we only have one.

We arrived home late that night. The air was still gloomy. I thought of hearing about someone’s death again in the future, but I don’t want to wait for that moment anymore to remind me that I should be living right this very second.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” – William Shakespeare

“My fear was not of death itself, but a death without meaning.” – Huey Newton

“Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.” – Socrates

(Top Image: Moyan Brenn)

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