Tonight a good man died, and I don’t use that adjective lightly.
When I met him he had a plump nose, a frizzled patch of thin grey hair, and drooping, peach-grey ears. He wore no glasses, and his eyes seemed to be at least one size too small to match the rest of his face. He walked slow but proud, and it was clear that his sense of wonder had not aged along with his body. He asked you questions, and you could tell he was genuinely curious to know the answer. He had a funny little smile which he revealed while regaling visitors with tales from his life which were at least half true. (Does it really matter, in the end?) When he was a young man the President and the newspaper and most of the people he knew told him to join the fight against the Japanese. So he did, but soon he decided to trade his gun for a camera.
He became a skilled and original artist, photographing people, places, and major events around the world well into his eighties. Whether he was capturing fighter pilots in their final moments, or Parisien street children along the canal, he knew when and how to catch his subjects so that they were truly revealed.
He traveled from a battleship in the Pacific to Europe, Africa, Asia, and all over the United States. In later life he had children, and though they always wanted more from him, he gave them what he could. Like most men, he had difficulty negotiating his purpose in life with children, family, commitment.
He liked women, even when he was old and frail, and he was unabashed regarding the same. I like that quality in men. I’m not sure if there’s a God, but if there is, I believe the presence of women on our planet is the best evidence of His gender. Their beauty covers the earth, making every city and town brighter in its own way; I respect other men who acknowledge and celebrate that. That said, his like of women extended to women beyond his wife, and because of that his family suffered.
His impact is written on the faces of his children and grandchildren, and every woman he once loved. His photographs will live on and inspire long after his death. And all of the rooms and houses and places he inhabited—everything he saw—will be forever marked by his presence. Every grain of sand, every beach, every dense forest and every city street he touched is richer because he once lived. He’s dead, but his energy remains.
His legacy is rich and messy and painful and beautiful and strange and incomplete and at the same time perfect. For he lived, and lived a full, and adventurous life. He loved living, and the people around him loved him for it.
The Elephant in the Room
Many people choose to either ignore, or vilify death. Our primary cultural signifier of death is that of the shadowy grim reaper, wearing a skeletal face and black robes, anticipating our demise with glee.
The topic of death is brought up at a dinner party, and guests shy away and try to change the topic to something more “upbeat,” and less “depressing.”
An elderly family member dies and the funeral home director spends hours applying makeup and pressing an old suit; doing everything in his power to spare us—the living—from witnessing the reality of post-mortem decay.
Most people spend their lives trying to ignore the spectre of death like some beggar in the street, pretending not to notice, pretending not to hear the steady rhythm of death’s footsteps following their own. I have never understood why.
There is no other thought that inspires, excites, and motivates me like the thought of my own death. No other idea that pushes me to achieve, and achieve now. Nothing motivates me to party like the image of death I see in my head, watching my body burn on the funeral pyre; decaying with a peaceful grin on my face, saddened that one party is ending, but at the same time curious about the next.
We all grow up knowing one thing, and one thing only: we are born, and one day we will die. That’s it. That is the only bonafide, 100-proof, absolute certainty about life and living that we have access to. This is the only thing we know for sure. It is ironic, then, that we spend most of our lives trying to forget it.
Do You Really Want to Live Forever, Forever… and Ever?
I know some people who express a desire to live forever. But people who think they want to live forever rarely ask themselves an important question: do I even want to?
Immortality would be pure hell. Do you want to go around and around and around on the same Ferris wheel for all time? Think about it.
Spinning around on this rock in the same form for all eternity would become painfully dull after a century or two. What makes our time on Earth so exciting is that it is a limited time offer. At a certain point, we all have to step off to make room for whoever is coming up behind us. This is what makes the ride so exciting, and entertaining any thoughts to the contrary spoils it for ourselves, and for all of the other passengers onboard.
Befriending the Reaper
It’s useful to think long and hard about your death if you want to live, and I don’t mean the funeral arrangements. I mean your actual death, not the after-party.
When the hour of your death draws near, how do you think you’ll feel? How do you want to feel? What thoughts are you going to hold close as you slip away? We all die alone, but do you want a stranger or loved ones to witness your departure? In your final moments will you choose to stay present, or speculate about what will come next?
As I move on from this earthly form I want to die having really lived; to have sucked as much bliss and joy and excitement out of my time on Earth as humanly possible.
To die happy is to die knowing that I brought as much light, love and happiness to myself and the people around me as I was capable. To die wearing a wide smile on my face, with multiple wrinkles around my eyes revealing ten thousand afternoons spent laughing with friends, my voice hoarse following ten thousand wild nights and conversations, my limbs tired after a century of dance. I want to die in absolute peace so that my rest is eternal, and those witnesses to my death are inspired to keep living, and living well.
Death is exciting, and not because of some speculative and imaginary afterlife, but because it provides the ultimate excuse to live, and live now. To exercise every passion and exorcise every demon, to pursue each and every curious avenue, and dive into the ocean of joy that stands at your feet in every moment of every day.
We delude ourselves, and cheat ourselves and others out of joy when we live in deliberate ignorance of death. When we ignore death it draws nearer.
So what is the solution?
Move deeply into death. Try to imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of the room where you will die. Imagine the thoughts you will have as the music fades and the lights grow dim. Picture your diminishing body, slowly voiding itself of life as death moves in. Picture the people around you (if there are any) as they watch. Imagine their faces, and try to listen to their voices, as you imagine your own. Will you speak? Will you smile? How do you want to die?
As you read these words and follow this narrative, you are nearer to death than when you began. What’s more, death may come at any moment. Each and every day many thousands of people around the world die long before they anticipated. Death is so near that you can actually hear it, if it’s quiet enough and your mind is still. In every moment, there is a very real chance that your time on Earth will end; death follows our every movement as human beings.
So make no mistake: your party will end. Your breath is not eternal. Your flesh will one day rot and decay so that your corpse will be unrecognizable to everyone you once cared about, and who once cared for you. If you choose to buried in a hole in the ground, your flesh will eventually return whence it came, the mould and the bugs and the worms and the bacteria consuming the physical evidence of your life so that their lives can go on. If you choose to be cremated, your body will turn to ash, with hot reams of fire igniting your hair and skin and bones so that you eventually fit into a neat metal box to be carried around and eventually disposed of by friends and family. You may end up in the Ganges, or Lake Minnetonka, but the end result is the same.
You will die. And not only will you die, but everyone you love and who loves you will also die. Furthermore, one day, whether it is in one hundred or one hundred thousand years, there will be no memory, trace, or evidence that you once lived.
So what are you to do about it?
Live, and live now. Live powerfully, dramatically, absolutely now. Live with as much gusto and passion and strength as you can muster. And don’t stop until you are so absolutely satisfied with living that death seems a curious, even welcome, transition.
Live fully now because you will never get another opportunity.
This article contains excerpts from my newly released e-book, Everyday Joy