“Most people ebb and flow in torment between the fear of death and the hardship of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet, they do not know how to die. Rehearse death. To say this is to tell [someone] to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave to fear. He is above, or at any rate, beyond the reach of all political powers.”
I came across this quote in the book I am reading (The Blight of Muirwood) and legit jumped because of the profound and simple truth I believe it carries. So many people shun death, seemingly immune to the fear it can illicit in many of us. Over and over again I have seen signs that accepting death is the first step to truly living.
In a podcast recently (the better human project ep 64), Dan Freed was being interviewed. He told a story about conquering his irrational fears of death. He said that he would swim in the ocean at night, swimming perpendicular to the shore. I don’t know if you have ever been to the ocean at night, but it has a way of showing you just how how powerful it is. The ocean at night is overwhelming, mysterious, unreadable, and dangerous. It’s scary. He would feel the fear creeping into him, but he would keep swimming. One night he swam so far he could no longer hear or see the shore. He learned how to ignore the voice in his head that told him he would die. He conquered the fear of death by acknowledging it and having courage anyway.
Another example comes from the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F#ck, Mark Manson. At the end of the book he is standing on a huge cliff in South Africa, Cape Town I think. He walks out to the edge of the cliff, slowly and surely, and his fears begin to overwhelm him. Every step closer to the edge he takes, his fears are elevated to higher dimensions until he is right at the edge. As he looks down, his terror in the face of death is overwhelming and yet he persists. He stares death in the face and beats it, by acknowledging it and moving forward anyway.
We will all die. This fact is really the only thing we know for sure. People may not like it, I’m sure not a fan of the concept, but it will happen. However, out of this realization comes the opportunity to truly live, to truly embrace life for all that it is worth. Without rehearsing death, as Wheeler puts it, we are constantly shrinking in the face of its vast and indomitable existence. In short, without accepting death and having courage in spite of it, we will live our lives never truly having lived at all (I feel like I am quoting something but I can’t place it. If anyone knows, let me know).
Every morning Steve Jobs would stand in front of his mirror and ask himself if he were to die tomorrow, would he be happy with what he was doing in life. Every day he chose to live in the presence of death, letting its existence empower him to live actively and urgently. We should all feel a little bit more urgent, not anxious, but steadfast in our goals. In addition to this, Jobs was able to better understand his level of satisfaction with his actions because when he veered off course he would know right away. He had a corrective mechanism installed in his life, powered by death.
There is certainly wisdom to be drawn from the question: What would I do if I were to die tomorrow? However, an often overlooked question, in my opinion, is: What if everyone else were to die tomorrow? This question, since I thought of it, has allowed me to be more present in conversations, exude more compassion for people, and truly listen with care and affection. Every moment matters. The questions, in conjunction, can lead us to a life lived more fully, both for ourselves and for others.
My greatest fear in life is to be on my deathbed wishing that I had engaged more in my life. I fear living a half-life. I fear that I will not use the agency I know I have to do what I long to do. In recognizing and respecting death, one can move beyond this fear and live a life otherwise impossible. I am not sure how to “rehearse death” but I will do my best to acknowledge its existence with the hope to live more fully, knowing full well that life can end out of nowhere.
PS. I had a magnificent conversation with a friend of mine after posting my previous blog and we came to the conclusion together that I am not opposed to living for the sake of being happy. I am opposed to living for the sake of surface level happiness. In my mind, happiness is low level and joy is more pure and better quality, but these are only my definitions (semantics). I never would tell someone that they have no right to feel joy, or even happiness. Pursue joy, pursue real love and have fun. Be warned of filling your life with surface level happiness though. Real happiness is found through hard work and comes in the form of joy.