Our ironic attitude to death

Photograph taken in North Wales
Photograph taken in North Wales

As a culture, we avoid talking about death. Whether it’s because of existential angst (the worry about what’ll happen to us after we die?), a simple association with sadness and sorrow (we’ve experienced other peoples deaths but by definition we’ve never died ourselves), or because of an empathic understanding of how sad our death may make our friends and loved ones (at least, we assume so).

This is very understandable but it’s counterproductive all the same. By treating death as something unspeakable we avoid it’s consideration at all cost. The effect of this avoidance is huge.

Though it might feel like bringing a sledgehammer to break a nut, remembering that you’re soon going to die is a cure for all manner of life’s little problems.

Take procrastination. Literally the attitude of “I’ll do it tomorrow”. What better answer than to remember that there may not be all that many tomorrow’s left?

Or take work stress, which so often (not always, obviously) results from our taking on too much and failing to prioritise? What better antidote than “life’s too short for this crap”?

What of worry about fitting in, about not doing that thing you’ve always wanted to do because, well, “what will people think?” Just remember that it might well be now or never. You may be brave enough tomorrow, but of course tomorrow may never come.

There’s an irony in our attitude to death. One of the principal objections people give to considering their own death is that it’s painful to think about how sad people will be. Perhaps this sounds a bit too much like cold hard economics but people are likely to miss you all the more if you’ve lived a rich meaningful life, if you’ve given more than you’ve taken. And remembering that you, too, will die, and quite soon, is one of the best ways I know to get yourself to do meaningful things with each day, to do those difficult things that involve giving more than you take.

Remind yourself that you don’t have all that many days left, and you’re less likely to allow this day, right here and now, to be filled with things that don’t matter.

This is hardly a novel insight, but we are so disinclined to take it on board, it deserves repeating.

Here are two of my favourite quotes:

“Let us endeavor to live so that when we die even the undertaker will be sorry”
— Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

Image courtesy of every third website on the Internet
Image courtesy of every third website on the Internet