While it serves no useful purpose to dwell too much upon our mortality, it serves even less purpose pretending we’re immortal. I think an unspoken denial of death, acting as if we’re not going to die, is a significant and under appreciated problem in modern life.
I see this denial frequently in the driving behavior of young men; automobile accidents are the leading cause of death in males between the ages of 18-24. A less dramatic though no less fatal example can be seen played out through poor behavioral choices such as smoking, eating/drinking too much, obesity, medical noncompliance, etc.
While it is easy to understand that some people figure Well, I’ve got to die somehow, might as well be from high blood pressure, I think such a blatantly shortsighted view of mortality rings false. I suggest we can use our awareness of throwing off this mortal coil to learn to live richer and more fulfilling lives.
I have often wondered what it would be like to know, in advance, just when we are going to die, like the expiration date on a carton of milk. I have come to the conclusion it would be a morbid affair. Though, on the one hand, you can rest assured in the knowledge you have thirty or forty or fifty more years to go, I suspect you’d never get over hearing that clock ticking relentlessly away (a latter day Captain Hook.) I’m inclined to think such knowledge would impel us, certainly as our time began to draw near, to wild and empty gestures and attitudes.
No, I should think that foreknowledge of the day, month and year of our death would be a largely unwelcome and troublesome piece of information. But suppose we just knew the month; not the day or the year, just the month.
One upside of knowing when you were going to die is that it provides an opportunity to get your house in order. I’m not referring so much to the legal and financial aspects, though they are important in their own right. I’m thinking more of the personal, interpersonal and spiritual elements. As you approach the month of your possible departure, you are provided with a definite opportunity for reflection. What have I left undone? What have I left unsaid? Whom do I need to forgive? Where have I transgressed and need to ask for forgiveness? With whom do I need to make amends?
While some may think we should be asking ourselves these questions every day, I’m not sure the majority of us are ready to commit to that type of spiritual discipline. While the passing of loved ones does help keep us in touch with some of these larger issues, reflecting on someone else’s passing, no matter how much we cared for them, lacks the immediate and final impact of contemplating our own.
I think we become so focused on the three or four largest issues in our lives, our marriage, our jobs, our families, that few manage to keep track of the smaller, less dramatic ones. How much resentment are you holding on to right now? Is there someone in your life to whom you are not speaking? Is there someone you have done ill to or has done ill to you? That these matters may appear small and inconsequential helps explain why they can have such an enormous and powerful impact on our lives. Because they seem small and inconsequential we tend to ignore or underrate them, allowing them to accumulate and grow in the amount of harm they create, much as an untreated wound can lead to gangrene.
As the month of your potential demise approaches you can avail yourself of the opportunity to address these apparently petty issues and put your house in order. It can be a very sound and useful spiritual practice, made less demanding by the knowledge that you only need to do it once a year. But don’t be surprised if, after experiencing the psychological benefits from adopting such a practice, you don’t feel a pull to do it more often.
The effect of caring about putting your house in order is valuable primarily because you don’t have to do it. You could not do it (and many don’t) and no one would be any the wiser. The fact that you would do it speaks to the presence within of a personal system of values that you have willingly and voluntarily embraced. Having this type of honest relationship with a deeper truth, one that exceeds the boundaries of pure self-interest (and, at times, can be downright inconvenient) is the hallmark of an evolved approach to life. Concern for the greater good is already demonstrated in the literature to be correlated with greater personal happiness.
Ponder if any one month has seemed different to you in your life from the others. If this type of self-reflection fails to produce an answer, you may choose one arbitrarily.
While one part of me always wants to throttle and shake some kid flying by in his souped-up little VW, another part prays for his well-being and momentarily flashes upon my own mortality. While dwelling morbidly upon mortality may be a fault, entertaining an occasional reminder of it serves a useful and productive function. None of really knows how much time we have left. Building a small reminder to that effect into our lives only seems to make sense.
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