Death = Freedom

But life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve nothing to lose.” – Ernest Hemingway

Fearing death is instinctive. While fear of death stems from a variety of causes, there are a few common themes: fear of the after-life; fear of leaving behind loved ones; unattained goals; fear of not experiencing enough; and fear of not leaving behind a legacy. Most people don’t regularly think about their death; everyone knows it’s going to happen but it’s not imminent. Nevertheless, people are concerned with how they will be viewed once they leave this earth. The truth is that unless you are part of the .01% of people whose legacies will (maybe) live on forever, you will eventually be forgotten. Your name and everything you have accomplished in your life will be lost. Instead of feeling fear, I find this truth incredibly liberating.

Living my life based on others’ expectations is something I frequently think about. By nature of having grown up in a Philadelphia suburb, and having graduated from a prestigious prep-school and a selective liberal arts college, I have been surrounded by extreme competiveness my whole life. Whether it was conscious or subconscious, my peers and I were driven by others’ expectations. Expectations engrained so deeply, that they didn’t seem like a choice. In fact, where I was raised, the expectations were higher than most people could imagine. The acceptable career paths: doctor, lawyer, professor, finance, maybe entrepreneur. As I started to think about the limits of my life, I realized that eventually no one will remember my relatively dubious accomplishments, and the whole ethos seemed absurd.

Think about how short your life is. You can’t drink legally (in the U.S.) until you’re 21. Your brain doesn’t stop maturing until you’re in your late late-20s/early-30s.  You start losing energy and cognitive function well before your 70s. The cliché, “life is short,” is incredibly appropriate. An individual’s lifespan is a minute fraction in just HUMAN history alone. If you consider the histories of the earth and universe, our lives begin to seem increasingly short and insignificant. Your life most likely won’t mean anything 150 years from now. Your great, great grandchildren probably won’t even know your name.

Oddly enough I find these thoughts comforting. This realization is what I needed to validate my desire to live day by day. As long as your bases are covered both monetarily and socially (i.e. you can afford to feed and shelter yourself and have at least a few true friends) then you have every right to do whatever makes you happy. Each day HAS to be enjoyed. The average person sleeps eight hours a day; this results in 33% of each day and 9,582 days of your life being spent unconscious. I stopped caring what other people think. I stopped obsessing over the idea of finding a career. The best result: I started taking the steps necessary to enjoy each and every day. By realizing that on the Earth’s history scale my death was imminent, I was able to enjoy another cliché: the little things. I was relieved of the burden of trying to “make something of myself.” I stopped viewing life as a series of milestones.

Life is too short to be wasted, yet so many people do just that. And the sad thing is people don’t even realize it. Fighting against this social programming is incredibly difficult.  Some people think the solution is to stop caring what other people think, but I don’t think that that is possible or productive. I think the only way to truly live the life you want is to realize that nothing you do is that important. Nothing you do is worth crippling stress and nothing you have or haven’t done is worth crippling regret. You owe it to yourself to enjoy what little time you have in this universe. Don’t spend it doing something you hate, don’t spend it around people who you can’t tolerate or don’t tolerate you, and don’t take anything too seriously.

28 thoughts on “Death = Freedom

  1. The mindset in Zen is similar. I guess Zen people (and Buddhists in general) have been reaching this same conclusion for over a thousand years, but it’s still necessary that each person arrives at it him- or herself. Can’t take the burden of realization off of anyone 🙂 Cheers and welcome!

      • I used to think it’s all touchy-feely and bullshit, but I’ve read Brad Warner’s books and that changed my opinion completely. He’s a hardcore punk from the early scene and now Zen master, and I’m a metalhead so we had some mutual respect right from the start.
        Some Buddhist schools are more esoteric than others and place more emphasis on the ritual and the teachings, but Soto Zen recognizes only practice and realizing shit yourself. I found out that’s the way I like to learn, and I realized that gaining an understanding of spiritual things can be done like that — you wouldn’t expect dry practice to do that to you unless you’ve done it.
        It’s important to understand that the underlying realization is the same no matter which Buddhist school you happen to like. If the first ones don’t impress you, try others.

  2. Reblogged this on Raphael O. Akeya and commented:
    ‘ Nothing you do is worth crippling stress and nothing you have or haven’t done is worth crippling regret. You owe it to yourself to enjoy what little time you have in this universe. Don’t spend it doing something you hate, don’t spend it around people who you can’t tolerate or don’t tolerate you, and don’t take anything too seriously.”
    That was powerful, thanks for sharing.

  3. It took me a few years to figure it all out and by the time I was 40, I really didn’t care or give a hoot what anyone thought of me, or what I did….I had been caught up in the “pretending to have a wonderful life” with the mad I was married to, well I divorced him, re-centered my life and haven’t been happier since…I believe that most of us have to evolve to the state of not giving a dam about society’s few on us as a person, as long as your abiding by the law and paying your own way without cheating anyone for it….who cares if I drive a lesser car, my houses is smaller, I have less things!! I certainly don’t….my needs are met and my family, kids, are all happy doing their thing….then its all good….only person I have to please is me….good post…

  4. One other comment……death is imminent in all our lives….my sister, perfectly healthy, passed away form coughing on morning, her trachea just collapsed from coughing….otherwise she was a very healthy adult….so death is imminent daily in our lives…its just how you choose to deal with….nothing she could of done differently, we all cough from time to time…so I learned in 2007, that yes you can die at any minute of your life, old age doesn’t always wait to take you….just sayin

  5. Imminent death is one good point for living in the moment. My siblings and I don’t know our great-grandparents names, much less the great-great grandparents. I was upset about something once and was asked: “How important will it be 100 years from now?” That gave me a new perspective on things. It’s important to me to work at a job I enjoy, spend time with family I enjoy, develop interests I enjoy, and do what I enjoy which can be of help to those who need it. Yesterday, my husband told me he would take my interests more seriously if I didn’t change to something else every six months. I started trying to defend myself, but guess what: I don’t care how he feels about my interests. I’m not asking him to do them with me. I intend to try everything that catches my attention. I don’t intend to die wishing I had tried them.

  6. You shared a great perspective on life. After years of trying to over achieve and paying the price, I’ve come to the same conclusion. It’s still hard to do sometimes, but I try. I’ve taken to giving this advice to a lot of the young people that work around me everyday. I hope some take it to heart. Their lives will be much more rewarding and satisfying.

  7. In the words of a close friend of mine ‘it’s never that serious’. I absolutely love this post, and your flawless writing makes it that much enjoyable.

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