The Blessing of Mortality
If I had to pick one set of ideas most likely to change a life for the better, I’d feel pretty good about the 7-minute introduction Sam Harris offers at the beginning of his recent interview with Frank Ostaseki. I’ve been listening to it pretty frequently in the last couple of days, and I’m finding that when I take these ideas seriously, I simply cannot sustain my habitual self-centeredness or the anxiety it relentlessly feeds.
I’m generally fairly reluctant to attribute transformative power to intellectual exercises (i.e., thinking), but I’m finding that this is, for me, an important exception.
Frank Ostaseki is a well-regarded authority on a topic deeply relevant to all of us: death, and in particular the lessons death can offer us about how we might live our lives. And not just philosophically. The point made here is that this actual moment, right now, as you read this sentence, can be informed and enriched by a thoughtful consideration of the inevitability of our own deaths and the deaths of everyone we love.
It is tempting to write this off as morbidity, but if we don’t allow ourselves don’t fall into that trap, we are left with a startling, clear, and impactful lens on the literally incomparable value of this precious moment, and perhaps most importantly the profound value of our relationships.
“You’ve had a thousand chances to tell the people closest to you that you love them - in a way that they feel it - in a way that you feel it. And you’ve missed most of them. And you don’t know how many more you’re going to get.”
This is not a new thought, not by any stretch. Similar observations have been made in multiple civilizations across multiple millennia. Isn’t it interesting, given the antiquity of these ideas and the undeniable truth of our own mortality, how little we allow ourselves to be affected by them? I have a deep and somewhat lasting affinity for these ideas, and yet without reminders such as this one I rarely allow them to occupy my attention in any real way. In my case, and perhaps for many of you, it’s not an aversion to the idea of mortality that accounts for this neglect. Rather, it’s a simple attention deficit - my vulnerability to being distracted, quite nearly constantly, by issues and attitudes that operate as if mortality was an interesting story but not relevant to me. At least right now.
In fact, what could be more relevant to me in every moment than the fact that it may be my last, or may be the last for someone I love?
“The truth is none of us know how much time we have in this life. And taking that fact to heart brings a kind of moral and emotional clarity and energy to the present. Or at least it can. And it can bring a resolve to not suffer over stupid things.”
Harris points out that the nature of our lives is such that much of the time we are engaged in mundane activities. The Zen tradition refers to chopping wood and carrying water. In my case it’s doing the dishes, taking out the trash, and searching in vain through a mountain of kids’ laundry for a tiny sock that matches this other tiny sock, knowing full well that expecting kids’ socks to match is absurd.
Too often I experience that task as some sort of personal insult, as if reality is teasing me with my own insignificance and the insignificance of the work I must do. Harris has some important perspective here: “That kind of thing is impossible if you’re being mindful of the shortness of life…”
“Contemplating the brevity of our life brings some perspective to how we use our attention. It’s not so much what pay attention to, it’s the quality of our attention. It’s how we feel while doing it…”
That, my friends, is a revelation. How much of our time do we spend in an effort to change ourselves and the world such that we can finally feel at ease, content that we’ve accomplished something meaningful or achieved some lasting security. And how much magic and beauty do we simply throw away by viewing whatever we’re actually doing right now through this impoverished lens?
It’s hard for me to admit how much time have I spent getting the laundry done so that I can go do something meaningful or satisfying. This is the ultimate addiction, one which most other behaviors and addictions serve. In what sense can we ever hope to consider ourselves free, if we are not free to savor the magnificence in the only moment we will ever have access to? (This one, silly.)
“This is your life. The only one you’ve got. And you’ll never get this moment back again. And you don’t know how many more moments you have. No matter how many times you do
something, there will come a day when you do it for the last time.”
How differently would I feel looking for that damn sock if I knew it was my last time to do so? And the truth, the very real and unembellished truth, is that it may have been. I simply cannot ever know.
How many dying people have, thinking back on their lives, realized that folding kids’ laundry, or doing the dishes, or trading hellos with a stranger, are experiences more valuable than whatever it was they hoped to attain speeding through those moments to the next thing?
How many of us will, given the blessing of a clear moment on our deathbed, realize that the cliched sayings about the value of the present moment, the sacred hidden in plain site, and the incomparable treasure of a friend or even a stranger, are simply and powerfully true?
How many of us will do the work required to keep those understandings front-and-center where they belong? Wouldn’t it be worth a little effort?
It takes about 15 minutes to fold the kids’ laundry... So that their socks match... Which doesn’t matter in the least. How much practice, then, should we invest in cultivating habits of attitude and perspective that allow us to actually witness and savor the countless miracles of our lives? How much practice and effort is it worth to remain awake to the infinite richness and blessings of even the most normal moment?
Surviving this life, as we all must admit, is a doomed endeavor.
Really living, though? That may in fact be a possibility.