I’d like to ask you this – pause for a moment and ask yourself, “What is it that I dread most?”
A majority of answers will be a variation of this – Death.
What we dread most is not death itself, but the manner in which it occurs. Untimely, unwarranted and unwelcoming – these are the thoughts we associate with death. No wonder it causes us to cringe. Death is the universal truth, something that we have to accept and we cannot avoid. To fear death is to fear reality itself. It ascribes the Universal Law of Change – the old giving way to the new. It is customary.
Nonetheless we keep going at life like there’s no end to it. Life isn’t a treadmill, it is a bridge that you cross over – on one side is everything you have learnt and built during your existence and on the other side an unknown. Also, it is this unknown which seems to terrify even the wisest souls.
Emotionally, my closest experience with death was when my mother died 20 years ago fighting her battle to cancer. When you’re 15 and experience this, you’re neither too naive to forget it nor are you old enough to reason with it.
Physically, the closest experience was about 5-6 years ago when I held my grandfather’s hand in the hospital. He was trying to tell me something and breathed his last. I saw life passing out right before my eyes.
The experience shook me awake.
It dawned on me that time isn’t the right metric to measure the distance between life and death. The right metric would be – Breath.
One breath is the difference between life and death. That’s all life has to it. We spend decades of our life – fighting, wanting, rushing, craving endlessly. In the end death comes, in an instant to rule over your life.
The “Why?” of death is enigmatic and beyond my comprehension at the moment. I attempt to demystify the “Is” of death.
- Death ‘is’ Certain – Death is inescapable. Humans die, animals die, iron rusts, stars collapse and so do galaxies. There is no probability associated with death; only certainty. There is no use lamenting over it. Yudhishtir, the eldest of the Pandava brothers had this to say, when Lord Yama the God of Death asked – “What was the most surprising thing in this world?”
ahany ahani bhūtāni gachchhantīha yamālayam
śheṣhāḥ sthiratvam ichchhanti kimāśhcharyamataḥ param
“At every moment people are dying. Those who are alive are witnessing this phenomenon, and yet they do not think that one day they will also have to die. What can be more astonishing than this?”(Mahabharat) [v30]
Consider this analogy – We are certain that driving our car into a wall at a speed of 100 miles per hour screams death; we don’t do it. However, we are willing to take the same chance with death – go on without meditating on its certainty. Montaigne reminds us that frequently meditating on death’s certainty allows us to overcome its strangeness and embrace it like any other event in life –
“To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death … We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”Montaigne
- Death ‘Is’ the greatest equaliser – Life is a statistical distribution – rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, spendthrift and miserly, happy and sad – of unequals. Death is an equaliser. This is probably why it commands respect from everyone – from a prince and a pauper alike. It spares no one. Another aspect of this characteristic of death is that it makes strangers share sorrow in unison. The moment we hear whispers of a death, for an instant there is a feeling of regret. Assuring us of its certainty, it reminds us that humanity is sailing in the same boat and caring for each other on this journey makes it worthwhile. Seneca writes about death as, “One law making that is free of all discrimination.”
- Death ‘Is’ a powerful motivator – Death is an outstanding teacher. It should motivate us to live a better life. Death can arrive akin to an unwelcome visitor – this should be reason enough to live fearlessly. Our perception of life changes instantaneously when we remind ourselves that this moment may be our last. That may have been the last kiss, the last hug, the last embrace – life will have more meaning when we tell ourselves this. The time and manner in which Death occurs is beyond our control – do not focus time and energy on this. Instead the time and manner in which we live our lives is definitely under control – focus time and energy on this. Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford is peppered with thoughts on mortality. This one stands out above all else – “Death is very likely the single best invention of life.”
“Death is not the opposite life, but a part of it.”Haruki Murakami
Death doesn’t stop life, but serves as the impetus for life itself. It should be the fuel which keeps the fire of life raging within us.
This is life’s greatest paradox – Searching for the meaning of life, only to find it hidden in Death.
Prashanth is the publisher of “The Lighthouse” newsletter on Substack. The newsletter is aimed at understanding how the world works, how to live a more meaningful life, make decisions that move the needle towards success, and more importantly, learn vicariously about avoiding failure.
You can also find Prashanth on Twitter.