Death—either an actual brush with it or slowing down in our daily lives enough to begin deeply and honestly contemplating it in a way that allows us to actually get a sense of what it will be like to know and not think that we’re actually going to die—is the ultimate alarm clock. It wakes us up.
Many people speak of being diagnosed with a terminal illnesses or having a heart attack as a “wake-up call.” What that means is that they wake up and begin truly experiencing life—they wake up and are suddenly more grateful for each moment because they’ve dropped so much of the cursed pettiness and anger and ungratefulness that characterizes so much of so many our lives. They appreciate the simple taste of water; they appreciate the simple things like seeing a child on a bike or trees swaying in the wind. They become truly appreciative of friends and family. They become truly appreciative of the simple yet inexplicable gift and mystery of being alive.
So many people with critical illnesses say that their lives only really began in the moments after they received their diagnoses.
Why is that?
Whenever someone is diagnosed with a critical illness—something that could happen to anyone of us any day—and perhaps sooner than we want to think—we are forced to realize in a way that can no longer be suppressed and as easily push out of our minds that life is indeed short, that there is in fact something bigger to lose than our pride and stubbornness, that death will indeed occur and may happen much sooner than we had planned or anticipated.
So often we hear about dramatic changes occurring to a person’s personality. They become kinder, gentler, softer, more tender, they laugh and cry more easily, they reach out to people they haven’t spoken to in years, they heal old rifts. So often so much of a person’s superficiality and baggage is dropped in the first few minutes and days after receiving a life-threatening diagnosis. Fear does that. Immense fear does that. It clarifies things. It flushes the system of so much nonsense and baggage. It helps us repriotize things. It awakens the senses, it startles us to life, it forces us to really get down to business in a way nothing else has so far—to get busy living or get busy dying. It forces us to cut to the chase. And it compels us to cut through our own bs. Why do I act so stubbornly and arrogantly? Why is it so hard for me to say sorry or to admit that I did wrong or made a mistake? Why am I such a selfish s-o-b? Why am I pretending to be so tough? Why do I put the blame on others so often?
And then it begins to dawn on a person—is this fear of death what I’ve really been running from all my life? Is this really what I’ve been trying to hide from and avoid? Is the root of all of my neuroticness and of so many of the bad things I do? Is this why I’ve been afraid to really look at myself all this time—because it would lead to this—realizing that I’m mortal and that I will die?
But most people wait till it’s too late to begin benefiting from contemplating and consulting with their own death. Instead of starting now, while there’s still time and while they can make changes in their priorities and the way they’re living, they wait till it’s too late—till they actually get the terminal diagnosis. And, so oftentimes, a person’s last days and months become a repudiation and refutation of how they had lived the previous part of their lives, and if they could go back and do it differently, they would—they would live more kindly, more compassionately, more honestly. They would run from themselves and their fears less. They would let their guard down more. They would be more tender. They would work late less. They would sit quietly more and just look at life around them and appreciate it and marvel at it all more. They would play with their children more and act silly more. They would love more and be angry and ungrateful less. They would be more appreciative, more grateful—say thank you to God, to Life, to their spouse or partner, to others more. They would be thankful more and petty less.
So why wait? Why wait until it’s potentially too late?
“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.” – Meister Eckhart
“When we have our body and mind in order, everything else will exist in the right place, in the right way. But usually, without being aware of it, we try to change something other than ourselves, we try to order things outside us. But it is impossible to organize things if you yourself are not in order.” – Shunryu Suzuki (I got this quote from http://bipolarmuse.com/2012/04/13/shunryu-suzuki-quote/; check out her blog if you haven’t yet–she has a lot of wise and inspiring and heartfelt posts.)
“A man and a woman who love each other have not experienced everything together in life unless, looking at each other, the questions have occurred to each: What would become of you without me? And what would become of me without you?” – Albert Schweitzer