Today is November 27th, less than 4 weeks before the Apocalypse. The downside is that you only got one turkey dinner this year. The upside is that you don’t have to stress about getting “the right gift” for your significant other, parent, boss, etc. Heck, just wrap an empty box and tell them to wait for Dec 25th (joke’s on them!).
Another upside of humoring the idea that the world is ending in 3 weeks? A little perspective. If you you only had 3.5 weeks left here, what might you do differently? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps many things. You be the judge of that. Either way, create a couple of minutes to think about death. The intention here is to enlighten, not depress. Bear with me.
It’s normal to feel anxious or overwhelmed by this suggestion. To want to do something else or stop reading this article. But, like most things we avoid or deny, ignoring death will not stop it from getting one step closer, as it does every second (ain’t that uplifting…).
What’s happening for you right now? What do you feel? Anxiety? Guilt? Fear? Panic? Confusion? All normal. It’s probably not something you pay much attention to on a daily basis, in our death-denying society. We both fear and marvel at death. We get awkward around people who have recently lost loved ones; we stare at accident scenes as we drive by with awe and guilt; we watch gruesome movies yet feel disgust and anxiety when similarly gruesome events actually occur. We ignore that we, like everything else on this earth, are impermanent. We forget that we have very little control over our existence, and could fall victim to accident, illness, disaster, or, in this case, the Apocalypse, at any time.
However, true awareness and fear of our finite existence is a real gift us humans share. From an existential perspective, it is the result of feeling as though one has not “fully lived,” and it creates anxiety, which (gasp!) is a good thing. This anxiety motivates us to live our lives, to be contributing members of society, to engage, relate, and experience. The desire to cease our existential angst causes us to utilize our freedom and responsibility to bring meaning into our lives.
If you bring to the forefront of your mind just how fragile and precious this life is, you might not care so much that you didn’t get that project done before the deadline, that thing your partner did that pissed you off, those extra 5 lbs, etc. You might decide you don’t want to continue working 70-hour weeks at your corporate firm, or maybe you do want to divorce in spite of the ramifications, or 40 is actually a great age to go back to school. When we’re aware of our mortality, our priorities change. In fact, there have been a ton of studies around Terror Management Theory, the fascinating conception of how we react when reminded of our mortality (known as “mortality salience”). This awareness influences our attention to physical appearance and social status, as well as prescription to morals, values, faith, and other meaning-making systems–things that give us meaning/make us feel significant (i.e. they give us self-esteem).
So right now, acknowledge your mortality. Say “Hello” to it. Instead of denying it or pushing it away, let it sit beside you.It doesn’t have to look like the Grim Reaper (or it could). Have a conversation with it.
- If you had a year left to live, how might you spend it?
- If you had 3 weeks left to live, how might you spend them (Notice what’s different, if anything, from the previous question)?
- Are there any “loose ends” that need tying up (e.g. Any “beef” with family/friends, clarifications, expressions of appreciation)?
- What do you believe you need to do, know, and experience before you die?
- Who is a person, living or dead, that you highly respect and might hope to emulate in some way? What is it about them that brings about these feelings?
- What’s one thing you can do today to make step towards living a more full and valued life?
Take a breath. The good news is that you are alive right now, and that you’re not thinking about this for the first time after a terminal diagnosis, with possibly much less time to put your awareness into practice. These are big, difficult questions. You might want to revisit them later, when you’re not at work or reading this on your phone on the bus. You might feel pissed off at me right now for bringing this to your attention. “F@*% you, Megan. I was doing just fine with blissful ignorance until you brought all this up!” That’s understandable. I go through most of my days ignoring my mortality, too. After all, it wouldn’t be productive to be in the throes of existential angst all the time. But, thinking about these things once in a while can help you create a more intentional, responsible, and valued existence. Like getting an oil-change. Jiffy-Value. Mr. Meaning. Hmm might be onto something, here…
“(Wo)man is but nothing else of what (s)he makes of her/himself.” -Jean-Paul Sartre