365 Reflections on Death in General and Mine in Particular: A Year-Long Practice
A Year in the Death 1/1/21
I’ve recently become fascinated with the subject of death — particularly my own. But before readers (especially friends and family members) jump to any conclusions: no, I am not dying.
Actually, I am.
So are you.
And so is every human being.
Confused? Let me be more precise.
I have not recently received a medical diagnosis of some terminal disease or illness with an associated projection of how much time I have left. On the contrary, I’m in some of the best shape of my life, enjoying a current state of health that most 56-year-old men would die for (pun intended).
Nor am I entertaining suicidal thoughts. On the contrary, I go to bed each night and wake each morning feeling as if I am the most blessed man on earth.
But I’m dying just the same.
So are you.
And so is every human being.
Still confused? Let me clarify further.
Although we don’t traditionally view it this way, the reality is that humans begin dying the moment they take their first breaths. For some, the process of dying takes only seconds or minutes. For others, this process may last over 100 years. But while the length of the process will vary widely, the outcome is always the same.
So I guess I DO have a terminal disease.
So do you.
So does every human being.
You’d think this would encourage us to regularly contemplate the eventuality of death and motivate us to prepare for it. Instead, most of us go out of our way to avoid thinking about death (especially our own) with one exception: how to avoid it at all costs.
Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. Billions of our species have voluntary stopped living to avoid dying. But what kind of “life” are they experiencing in doing so? As Roman political broker, philosopher, and playwright Seneca once observed:
“You are afraid of dying. But, come now, how is this life of yours anything but death?”
Is watching hours of mindless television or surfing the Internet alone in your house or apartment living? Is going weeks, months, a year without being in the same room with loved ones living? Is a life without live music and theatre, travel, and social gatherings with friends living? Maybe. Maybe not.
But what can’t be disputed is that our fear of death, arguably THE fear of our species, overrides everything else in our lives. And we continue to perform masterful mental feats of denial and delusion that it won’t happen to us, despite its absolute inevitability.
Hence this project.
For the next 365 days — the entirety of 2021 — I am going to contemplate and write about death every day. Some days, my thoughts and writings may be detailed essays. On others, they may be little more than the contemplation of a quote about death or a piece of art representing death or dying. Also, I may not share every daily contemplation with you, keeping my thoughts to my private journal. But I am committed to the practice.
Why am I undertaking this year-long exercise in death, one many of you undoubtedly find morbid or depressing?
The simple answer is that everyone should contemplate their mortality each and every day — at least that’s what the greatest thinkers in western thought have preached for over 2,500 years. And, rest assured, I will be sharing many of the insights on mortality these thinkers have passed down to us.
In fact, let me add a second of these insights to the above one from Seneca. Most of you probably have heard Socrates’ famous saying “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But might that also include the need to examine one’s death in order to truly make one’s life worth living? I think it does.
The more complicated answer as to why I’m doing this— and one I won’t even remotely begin to understand until December 31, 2021 — is that I’m searching for answers to a whole host of questions, including the following:
- Why are we humans so afraid of death? And can a practice such as this make us less so?
- Just how afraid of death am I? And will this practice make me less — or more — so?
- Can contemplating death each day (especially my own) make me a better person? A better husband? A better father? A better grandfather? A better friend?
- Would I have handled the past deaths of loved ones differently had I completed this exercise earlier in my life? If so, should we teach our children how to embrace both their lives and their deaths?
- Will this year-long practice raise more questions than it answers?
Ultimately, I have no other roadmap for this exploration of death, simply a desire to complete it and see where it takes me. I invite you to accompany me. But I’ll understand if you don’t.
Just remember this. While you can choose to skip this particular year-long death journey, you are destined to complete a life-long death journey. So why not prepare yourself for that inevitable trip and its final destination while there’s still time?
Or is there still time?
But that’s a subject for another day…