5 Minutes on Life and Death

Brief thoughts on living and dying well.

Posted Jan 19, 2019

MaxPixels, CC0
Source: MaxPixels, CC0

Let’s start with death. Of course, religious people feel that, after death, they’ll go to some better afterlife (or hell) but I want to speak as an atheist.

My fear of death is mitigated by knowing I’ll be no more aware of being dead than I was of life before I was born. That’s comforting.

The tougher fear is the fear of dying. Yes, on one end of the continuum, some people are fine and then die painlessly in their sleep. Alas, that’s only one end of the continuum.

I deal with the fear of dying by reminding myself that life is finite and thus not to be frittered, but beyond that back-of-my-mind awareness, I suppress thoughts of death and dying by forcing myself to distract myself to some productive or pleasurable thought or activity. My guess is that that atrophies the associated memory neurons, allowing more pleasant ones to reside top-of-mind.

If the pain is more than it's worth, grateful I live in a state that allows assisted suicide, I'd opt for it.  That's comforting.

I also reduce my worry about death and dying by trying to live every hour as richly as I can so on my deathbed, I won’t be plagued by woulda-coulda-shoulda.

Of course, “living as richly as I can” requires definition. Some people assert it is, per the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness. Others aim for work/not-work balance. At the risk of revealing my out-of-step values, I spend as many hours as possible working, averaging 65 hours a week for my entire adult life. As a result, I’ve been able to work with 5,500 career counseling clients, have written 12 books and 3,500 articles including more than 1,300 here on Psychology Today (7.3 million views,) am in my 30th year hosting an NPR-San Francisco radio program, created over 200 YouTube videos, have played more than 2,000 gigs as a keyboard player, do a one-man show, wrote two one-woman shows, wrote four plays, four screenplays, taught at UC Berkeley, for the last four years at UC San Francisco School of Medicine, and now will be Adjunct Professor at Golden Gate University, teaching career counseling to graduate students.

You may be wondering if working long hours hurts health. I believe it’s healthy as long as you’re doing what you do well and don’t have a fire-breathing boss. Of course, you can’t generalize from a sample of 1, but I’ll be 69 in June, just had my annual physical in which I continue my string of clean bills of health, and have all the energy I’ve ever had, continuing to work 60+ hours a week while maintaining a good relationship, in our 47th year now, with my wife Dr. Barbara Nemko. When I die, I will feel that I have earned my time on this earth.

The takeaway

In light of this brief article and your other readings and thoughts, what, for you, would be your wisest approach to life and to death?

I extemporize on life and death for five minutes on YouTube.

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