How the hell does embracing death enable life?!
“Let us prepare our minds as if we have come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca
Take a moment. Let these words sink in.
Many of us will feel the tones of death in Seneca’s opening words, we will feel the fear of our mortality, our minds will close off and we will miss out on the wisdom of the words to follow.
It is only human to fear the end. The point of absolute uncertainty for our consciousness. We spend our lives, fortunes, and resources seeking to deflect this dying day for as long as possible. We are haunted by the idea of unfinished business and life unlived. In the pursuit of avoiding the very end, we end up living our lives shaped by its ever present shadow.
When I was 18, I was lucky enough to learn from a true Stoic about to beauty of life and death. His words, beliefs, and life shaped me. They gave me the tools to face my own mortality and to shape the nature of my wonderful time here.
In the face of his certain demise, I was told daily the same lesson: “I am only given today. And what a gift today is. I can only shape today. I can only control who I am and what I do today. Tonight, I will die. If tomorrow comes, it will be a new gift. Unexpected, unentitled but met with joy and gratitude.”
His words were not just a platitude, emptily ringing out like the aspirational posters of a long forgotten classroom; they were the very virtues his life embodied.
Each day his life was sorted to the best of his ability. No arguments left festering for tomorrow’s bravery to fix. No dreams perpetually procrastinating, waiting in the safety of “what ifs.” No opportunity left withering to be the man he strove to be. No acrimony towards his demise.
His perspective on life took bravery, courage, a spine, integrity, compassion, accountability, responsibility, hard moments, commitment. But it also gave immense freedom and contentment. One of the best humans I have ever known. He embodied so many virtues to which I still aspire.
For many years, I sought to live up to his memory, his perspective, his philosophy. I desired to embrace those individual virtues within myself. But still felt myself falling short. I sought to be compassionate. To be accountable. To be courageous. To have integrity. Yet the serene freedom and content calm he possessed escaped me.
I was developing the beautiful pieces, but was still insisting on fitting them in to the wrong puzzle.
I was still living afraid to die.
I was living for tomorrow. Assuming I was entitled to all of the tomorrows, yet afraid of the day they did not come. I was living trapped in a cycle of complacent entitlement: gorging myself on the possibilities of tomorrow to justify my wasting of today.
I was not dying each night, reborn with joy, gratitude, and a blank slate each tomorrow. My todays were going unlived. Dreams, words unspoken, life waiting to begin tomorrow.
When we live our life shrouded in the uncomfortable uncertainty of death, we are still reacting from a fear. Our life is not truly our own.
We fear the tomorrows: that they may not bring the glory of which we dream, that our efforts may fall flat, that those we love may leave us, that we may discover we are not as wonderful as we hope we are, that some of our dreams may not come to be.
Yet we also fear the todays. Afraid to start, indulging in distractions, avoiding the uncomfortable, succumbing to the quick sugar fixes of life rather than choosing the nourishing meal.
So we remain stuck in this holding pattern, living for an ever sliding concept of tomorrow, whilst denying ourselves todays.
We all long to look back on our life like Michelangelo admiring his magnificent masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel: in awe of the majesty of the cumulative whole. Rendered speechless by the beauty of a life well and fully lived. As a result, we invest such time fiercely protecting the potential of this masterwork: careful to never mispaint or taint its future majesty.
This ferocious preservation of potential means what we are left protecting is a blank canvas. Full of potential, empty of any actual creation. We miss the opportunities to add brushstrokes and color. To realize that a misplaced stroke was not a failure, but a stroke of genius which evolved the entire piece in a beautiful, unexpected direction. To create the beautiful whole step by step, stroke by stroke.
How often have we looked back on a month and struggled to remember what we had really accomplished which was meaningful? Where days blurred into meaningless blah? Where we remember the glorious plans we had for that time, but struggle to count the actual execution of them.
It’s about time we all start trying to live like my Stoic and make the most of our todays. To color our canvases.
For anyone who knows me, I have some unique perspectives + experiences with mortality which I won’t wax philosophically on here. But I will say, like it or not, our end comes. Our body returns to its atomic matter. It recombines in endless, beautiful ways throughout our universe, but it is no longer ours.
To be fair, it is never really ours, every moment it is shedding, recombining, reshaping. Every 7 years our matter is entirely different than the cells which we called home the 7 years before. We truly are continuously dying and being reborn.
If we can develop an acceptance of this recombination, of this end of our dominion over the matter we call home, we are liberated to truly see the todays.
If you don’t want to think about the philosophies of mortality liberating your soul, let’s put it in terms of psychology.
When you accept the fact that the next moment isn’t a certainty, you are left with one simple, cliche choice: “now or never.” You only have this one moment to control, to shape. How do you choose to use it? To shape it? To behave? When you cannot count on the existence of a later.
No matter what you choose you are accountable for the choice of that moment. You give yourself the permission to shape your choice for that moment. To stand by it and continue making choices for each moment if and when they come.
You stop firing the neural pathways + the habits for tomorrow and begin to fire the ones for today, right now.
It’s not just an existential philosophy; living for today is at its core a habit.
It’s not worrying about the final result of your grand picture. It’s not worrying preemptively for tomorrow’s troubles. It’s realizing that grand picture is really just a giant tapestry of baby steps. Step by step which unfold into a marvelous journey that no one can predict. And thank heavens they cannot. It is yours to shape, to explore, to live. Moment by moment. Choice by choice. Today by today.
When you change perspective from trying to ensure the ideal final product to just shaping one moment at a time, how much more time, opportunity, joy to we have? Our life isn’t then summarized into one simple legacy of a lifetime. Our life is this mosaic of countless moments, lifetimes of the present, explorations. Each choice has no destination it must reach in order for the lifetime to be worthy. The life is already worthy, so each choice has no other role than to be embraced as part of the playground of life.
Liza Tullidge is a serial entrepreneur, investor + advisor focused on reengineering business + individuals to build a better planet. Find out more about Liza + her work at www.lizatullidge.com