Death Awareness and Living a Better Life

woman and parents on wedding day
My parents and I on my wedding day, May 1992

I was at a party sitting across from my sister Sandra talking about this and that when she suddenly asked me to “Swallow.” From her expression, I knew she’d turned from sister to Dr. Mini.

“You have a small bulge on your neck. You oughta have it checked out,” she said. After palpating the area, she declared that it was probably a nodule on my thyroid.

Several days later, an ultrasound revealed that it was indeed a nodule, one that warranted an ultrasound-guided fine needle aspiration biopsy (FNA*).

And needing such a procedure reminded me of death, my death, your death, the death of a species, the death of those already gone, and the inevitable future death of everyone still with us.

I thought of my death with some dread. The dread was not about the dying process or about ceasing to exist, but about living life oblivious that there is a deadline that is universal and personal.

Regret and Death Awareness

Death conjures my fear of what author Daniel Pink calls boldness regrets, those we inwardly bemoan when we think: “If only I’d taken the chance”— the chance to do, speak up, jump, pursue a cause, work, go out of my way for a stranger, grow, chase love, think deeply, or take on a challenge.

At the heart of all boldness regrets is the thwarted possibility of growth. The failure to become the person -happier, braver, more evolved- one could have been. The failure to accomplish a few important goals within the limited span of a single life. (Daniel Pink, The Power of Regret)

I value personal growth above all else and this is why I experience boldness regrets keenly, and why they loom so immense when I ponder how I might judge my life when I’m 60, 84, or 102.

Our Dual Selves

I don’t want to live complacently.

I want to avoid as many boldness regrets as I can. But doing so involves taking action, making an effort, and exerting myself -which is damn hard given we’re also hardwired to seek comfort and safety, to be lazy.

Herein lies the catch: the tension between our tendency to regret chances missed and our preference for minimizing effort. The former involves our future self, the latter our present self. Which do we prioritize?

Easy. Our impulse, our default choice, is to please who we are now.

Death awareness becomes helpful here:

I can’t think of a better way to tame the urgency of today’s convenience than to confront the ultimate deadline and the anticipatory regret of what might have been had I done this or had I said that.

And by “doing” I don’t mean, necessarily, big accomplishments and deeds -say, writing a best-selling memoir, completing an Ironman, or volunteering at a refugee camp halfway across the world. Though all of that would be fantastic, opportunities for smaller “doings” are all around us and count just as much. A few role models of mine: my 82-year-old mother, who continues to take lessons to improve her English; the two volunteers who run the nonprofit coffee shop where my autistic son works; my friend Pati, who specializes in making her loved ones feel special.

There’s also the joy derived from effort, which is 100 times more intense than the passing satisfaction of being comfortable and taking the path of least resistance.

I’m no philosopher, but I submit that the pleasure of an effortless existence is not the purpose of life. It can’t be. The reward is too shallow. Pondering the universal deadline reminds us that purpose lies elsewhere a bit beyond the self.

Death Is the Ultimate Deadline -No Exceptions

Life has a way of passing you by, one year giving way to the next. Suddenly you’re 54 and you look at the photo of you and your parents on your wedding day and realize your mother’s younger than you are today! It hits you hard that you have three to four decades left — if you’re lucky and death waits that long to carry you away.

But the moment of awareness passes and you go back to living each day as if you had millions more left or as if there was no “Dead” Line.

Of course, the ultimate deadline can’t be foremost in our minds all of the time or we’d live with impossibly intense feelings. But it ought to be more salient.

I look upon it a bit like my wise friend Gina treats her allotted time in the United States. Because she’s undocumented and has a son in Mexico, Gina’s keenly aware her time in the U.S. will end. Thus, she never skips watching 4th of July fireworks or collecting pretty leaves in the Fall: “I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll get to do it. Maybe I’ll be back in Mexico next year.”

“Next year,” of course, could be tomorrow or eight years from now.

Whenever it is, at some point, her time in the U.S. will come to an end. (Sad because Gina pays taxes and does work not enough citizens want to do, and yet there’s no vehicle for her to change her status. But that’s a whole other matter…)

Everyone’s alive time will also come to an end eventually. Statistically, the older we get, the closer death gets. The average number of years left for a person my age (54) is exactly 28.72. For a person my mother’s age (82), it’s 8. But that’s just an average. Whether in our teens, fifties, or nineties, we can’t know just how long we have left.

Still, examining the numbers on an actuarial life table is jolting and bewildering. “Death is a biological and mathematical certainty!” it screams at you. “You’re running out of years!”

Death reminds you of the value of the present. There’s value in appreciating it, whether you’re enjoying your morning coffee (my favorite moment of the day), running an orphanage, watching Ted Lasso, training for a marathon, negotiating a peace deal between two countries, or watching the chipmunks scamper about.

The way I see it, one year is one year, whether I’m 54 or 89, and I have the hope and fantasy that my 89th year can be as meaningful as my 54th.

Awareness of the ultimate “Dead” Line reminds me to live better while I’m still on the “Alive” side of the Line.

Note: The FNA biopsy didn’t reveal anything of concern, which was to be expected seeing as almost all thyroid nodules are harmless. Still, a relief.

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