A View From the Watchroom
Barry K. Wyrick, MS, MBA
Chief Operating Officer
When Your Number is Up…or How Death Gives Meaning to Life (10/18/13)
I have a belief about life and death that some would call fatalistic and others might call cynical. I have come to believe in the randomness and unpredictability of the universe, and this belief extends to my thoughts on living with the knowledge that we will die. I arrived at the belief that you never know when your time is up based on two things that I saw on television on the same weekend nearly 20 years ago. I am a racing fan, and there were two races on TV that weekend–a Can-Am race and a NASCAR race. Can-Am racing involves road courses and cars that are very wide and very low to the ground. Twenty years ago, the series actually had flagmen on the race track, to wave local cautions rather than full course cautions. So a McLaren road racer slides going into a corner, the flagman runs out onto the course to warn the other drivers, and the car runs directly over the top of him. In the NASCAR race the same weekend, one of the drivers was pulling out of the pits, and bumped into one of the crewmen on another crew, knocking him to the ground. You will never guess which one died. Following being run over in the Can-Am race, the flagman leapt back to his feet and jumped over the barrier (I later learned that he broke a bone in his foot and one in his arm). The crew member in the NASCAR race fell to the ground, striking his head, causing a massive brain bleed, and died. When your number is up, your number is up–and you never know when your number is up!
It has been said that humans are the only animals that are aware of their own mortality. We can argue whether this statement is true or not given the research on the consciousness of many other species, but we cannot argue that we, as humans, are aware that we will die. But what could be argued in that statement is whether we act like we are aware that we will die or not. Some of us ignore death, others fear it, and a lucky few embrace it (don’t worry, I’m not going all Sylvia Plath–I will explain later). I would like to use today’s post to talk about the consequences of each belief.
When we are young, we act as if we are invincible and immortal. We fear nothing and ignore consequences of our behavior. We jump out of the tree to feel the joy of flight, and we never consider the impact. However, some adults also live their lives ignoring the fact that they have an appointed day to die. Acting as though they will live forever, these individuals seek only the pleasure of the moment. After all, if the ride never ends, it will get boring after a while if you don’t do something to make it more interesting. The Delusion of Immortality leads to hedonism and narcissism, and some would argue that this belief is a major contributing factor to substance abuse. If I ignore my mortality, I don’t have to worry about what happens to me or anyone else because Nothing Really Matters. If every day is the same as any other day, and this will go on for eternity, the only thing that matters is what I can do and get for myself. What can I do to feel anything, because my entire existence is meaningless. While Bill Murray initially had some fun in Groundhog Day, eventually he resorted to new and interesting ways of killing himself.
Instead of ignoring death, others fear its very existence–and I’m not sure which mindset is worse, because those who ignore death do at least occasionally have some fun. The fear of death also steals meaning from our existence. When we fear death, every act that we take is evaluated by whether it will hasten our death or not. Because we fear death, the ultimate goal of our life is to delay it as long as possible because there is nothing worse in our minds than death. The Fear of Death leads to anxiety, depression, and despair–because ultimately we are powerless over death. No matter what we do, we will die, and none of our actions can change that reality. When we fear death, we live our lives in fear of the future instead of in the present. The fear of the future is a thief that steals the joy of the present. The biggest question on our mind is “What is going to happen?”.
I am going to die–there, I said it. I don’t know whether it will be in 30 years or 30 minutes. I don’t even know if I will make it home tonight–I have no assurance of my personal health and safety. It could be a brain aneurism or a car accident–either way I don’t make it home–and my cats are going to be pissed. Once I have accepted that I will die and I do not know when that will be, I can embrace that reality to give me meaning and purpose in life. Tony Robins said, “Live like it’s your last day on earth, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, work like you don’t need the money.” What would you do differently today if you knew it was your last day? So why didn’t you do that today? I am not talking about living a life with reckless disregard or telling your boss where to shove it. I am talking about those things that are most important to us. If you were dying tomorrow, who would you want to tell that you love them, or that they have given you great gifts, or that you are sorry? If you were dying tomorrow, could you take the time to stop and look at the rainbow, the rose, or the baby lizards (for those here in Florida)? When we have come to embrace our mortality, every day takes on more meaning and every event becomes more powerful. We are able to cut through the signal interference of meaningless crap and focus our lives on what is important to us. Truly embracing our death adds immeasurable meaning to our life. I am going to stop here with this post. I have to go home and make some telephone calls.