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The Pull of Death and the Embrace of Life

Life is exquisitely intertwined with death.

I am 66.

For the last six years, the idea of death has sat on my right shoulder. Sixty was the age when I realized I couldn’t deny that I’m on the last third of my life. To me, reaching the number 60 was very profound. When I was 59, my denial system kept the thought of my death at bay. As silly as it may sound, I could say to myself, I have a lot of time left because I am just in my Fifties. Reaching the number 60 changed my view. I had to acknowledge that more of my life had been completed, than what remains.

While this awareness is sobering, it also feels empowering. It is simply an ongoing reminder for me to examine questions such as:

Am I living the life I want? If not, what changes do I want to make?

What are my values? Are my actions in alignment with these values?

What do I want to be remembered for?

I’ve asked myself these questions before. Now, it is more urgent to explore these questions, to not deceive myself, for the pull of death is always with me. It is how I face the pull of death that is important. As I see it, there are several ways to approach this.

One: if we obsess about our mortality, our anxiety can immobilize us. Or, it can compel us to try to keep everything in our lives safe. Our lives shrink. Either way, we’re not present with what matters in our life now. We’ve let our fear of death define our life.

Two: if we deny our mortality, there is no need to challenge ourselves to take risks, since we believe we have all the time in the world. We can also deny time by keeping ourselves busy. If we slow down, we risk facing the reality that we will die. We keep our life superficial, because we are afraid to engage with the reality of our mortality. Our lives shrink. Denying our mortality can also manifest in the desire to prove we are immortal by being a thrill-seeker. Death is not going to defeat us. Either way, denying our mortality defines our life.

Three: if we choose to have a dialogue with the pull of death, we don’t deny it and we don’t obsess about it. We acknowledge there is a life-death continuum. We are aware that life is exquisitely intertwined with death. Something dies each moment as one experience is finished and a new experience takes its place. In the ongoing dialogue with the life-death continuum, we both expand and embrace our life.

As I engage with my life-death continuum, I feel sad as I explore the idea that I won’t live forever. Both the challenging and rewarding experiences of my life will come to an end. However, there is also a freedom in acknowledging that I will die. This moves me to be more of my authentic self, to come from my center. I find that while I’m impacted by other’s views, ultimately, I use it in the service of remaining true to myself and living with integrity.

That is why I like the image of death sitting on my shoulder, for it inspires me to embrace my life. Death is not so close that I will obsess about it, or so far away from me that I deny it. It gives me a new appreciation for the depth, complexity, and richness of being a finite human.

After I finished this blog, I found an animated video by Marsha Onderstijn, titled The Life of Death. This short video beautifully depicts what I have attempted to put into words. I found it very moving. See it here.