… in a bizarre, backwards way, death is the light by which the shadow of all of life’s meaning is measured. Without death, everything would feel inconsequential, all experience arbitrary, all metrics and values suddenly zero.
~ Mark Manson
You and everyone you love is going to die.
Does that surprise to you?
Does that make you angry or sad?
Most people find it morbid and uncomfortable to talk or even think about death. Yet, it’s also one of the only things we know for certain is going to happen to all of us.
And while we know intellectually that death is a normal part of life, we’re not so great at recognizing that death could impact us at any moment. When it comes to considering our own mortality, or the mortality of those closest to us, we become squeamish, like thinking or talking about death will somehow bring it closer to happening.
Maybe we’re a littler superstitious about it. Maybe we’ve been taught to avoid the topic. Maybe it’s a secret fear within all of us.
Whatever the reason, avoiding thinking about death hinders our ability to live. Because thinking about death gives us perspective, and without that perspective the efforts we make in our lives can easily be misdirected.
Below are four reasons why it’s worth thinking about death on a regular basis.
#1 It helps you to live in the moment
When you think clearly about your own mortality, you come to understand that you are promised no more than the present moment. Everything else is only a possibility.
All those plans you have for the future — your dreams, your goals, your desires — they might never come to pass. You might be dead before you accomplish any of them. So, why are you spending so much time imagining what your life will be like once you buy your dream home, when you get that promotion, when you travel to that exotic destination?
If this moment is all you’re guaranteed, shouldn’t you be paying more attention to it? Shouldn’t you be more concerned with what’s happening right now?
It may be obvious that life happens only in the present, but as humans we seem to need to be constantly reminded of this. Thankfully, death provides a powerful reminder. When we regularly think about death, it punches us in the face when we are missing out on what’s happening right in front of us.
Your moments are limited and they never come again. If today is the last time you ever see your parents or your partner or your best friend, how will you act? Will you be distracted by your phone, your work, your goals? Or will you instead put those aside because this moment is all you can be sure of?
Thinking about death gives us an urgent reason to pay attention now. It’s a reminder that each moment is precious, and that what we do with each of them matters.
#2 It helps you get your priorities straight
Are you the kind of person that says “yes” to everything? Do you feel obligated to be pulled here and there, and as a result never organize your life around the things you really want to do?
This is how most of us live our lives. We never sit down to think about what we really want, and if we do, we don’t actually follow through by transforming our lives accordingly.
We just do what others want us to do or whatever we’ve done in the past.
It’s all pretty thoughtless.
Thinking about your mortality makes it difficult to be thoughtless. Why? Because you can’t help but realize that your time is short, and that if you don’t start doing what you want to do now, you may never get the chance.
As Picasso said, only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.
Are you going to continue staring at your phone, while ignoring the people around you? Are you going to watch another episode of your favourite TV show rather than start writing? Are you going to fantasize about the weekend rather than do the work that’s sitting right in front of you?
We typical operate like we’ll live forever. Under this assumption, priorities don’t matter because eventually we’ll get to do whatever it is we really want to do.
But, when you understand that your immortality is a lie and that your time is shorter than you think, you become uncomfortable doing what you’ve always done. You begin to feel the urgency of life. And it is urgent — because your future is not guaranteed.
It is this sense of urgency that will call on you again and again until you figure out your priorities and then align your life to them. And it is by making space for your priorities that you will find joy on a daily basis.
#3 It gives you courage
We often feel fear because of the unknown.
You don’t know what will happen if you start your own business. You don’t know what will happen if you ask your crush out on a date. You don’t know what will happen if you speak in front of all your co-workers.
What if you make a mistake? What if you embarrass yourself? What if you fail?
What if you’re never the same again?
Thinking about death helps us to understand a fundamental truth about the world — everything changes.
On the one hand, this means the familiar and the comfortable will come and go. Think about the last thing you were looking forward to. It came and went, and there was nothing you could do to hold onto it.
On the other hand, this is also true of the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable. That mistake you made, the one you agonized over for days or weeks, is now gone. It doesn’t define you as a “failure.” In fact, you probably learned and grew because of it.
We fear that our actions will have some permanent, negative impact on us, but nothing lasts. Not our mistakes, not our embarrassments, not our failures.
Thinking about death helps us to see the impermanence of all things. It help us to see that our time is short and that we often don’t risk as much as we think we do by acting in spite of our fears. And once we see this, our fear becomes less of an obstacle to acting.
Compared to your death, how much does your fear of starting a business matter?
Compared to your death, how much does your fear of asking your crush on a date matter?
Compared to your death, how much does your fear of public speaking matter?
Compared to death, the obstacles in our lives seem smaller, less dire, and more easily overcome. Thinking about death also makes success and failure less relevant, because by acting in spite of our fears we are doing all we can. We live with fewer regrets.
So, think about your own death and you might find that it changes your relationship to your fears. You might find yourself acting when before you were too afraid.
#4 You won’t sweat the small stuff (or you’ll sweat the small stuff less)
Do you hate the way your parents constantly tell you how to live your life? Do you go bananas when someone cuts you off in traffic? Do you get angry when your partner complains about the messes you make? Do you remember every slight and offence ever directed toward you?
These are very human things to do, but they come at a price.
All these things eat away at us. They rob the present moment of some of its beauty by shifting our attention toward the past.
As has been shown elsewhere, we’re unhappy when we’re not living in the present. We know this from experience, too. How often do you make yourself miserable by repeatedly thinking about what hurt, frustrated, or annoyed you?
So, the next time someone does something that makes you want to punch them in the face, remind yourself that one day they will be dead. Do this to remind yourself of how precarious and fragile their life really is. This person you feel has wronged you, their entire existence hangs in the balance.
Consider how that might change your reaction the next time someone cuts you off in traffic or your partner makes an annoying comment. You might find that your reaction softens, because all too soon, they will be nothing but a pile of bone and dust.
And remind yourself that you, too, will one day be dead. Don’t do this in an attempt to dismiss what happened, but to ask yourself whether it’s worth spending some of the precious time you have on this planet to think about it.
You could be dead tomorrow. Do you want to spend your last day feeling angry about something that you’ll soon forget ever happened? Or do you want to spend that day enjoying what actually matters to you?
As with all perspectives, that choice is up to you, and thinking about death will help make that choice easier.
Start thinking about death today!
About a year ago, I bought an app called WeCroak. It reminds me 5 times a day that I’m going to die. As silly as that sounds, it has had a profound impact on me.
Death is one of those things that we’d all prefer not to think about. We know it’s going to happen, but we keep it at such a distance that we don’t allow the benefits of thinking about our mortality to seep into our lives.
Thinking about death is a powerful tool. It often provides the slap in the face we need to get moving, to work on the things we really care about.
So, take a couple moments today and reflect on your mortality, as well as everyone else’s. It just might bring you the clarity you’re looking for.