How We Find Life in Death

“Death is very likely the single best invention of life.”

– Steve Jobs

Ever since the news of the coronavirus emerged, we have been glued to our TVs and newspapers, with particular attention to the numbers of people who died. The constantly ‘breaking’ stories of the people dying make our experience of the pandemic very personal and poignant to the point of unsettling us. In some sense, at the centre of this crisis narrative is that we ought to fight the virus. But the issue seems much deeper: what if we are not even fighting just the virus, but our own mortality?

This narrative that we can fight not just disease, but death is not new and many of us are familiar with it. Over the years and decades, we have constructed the idea that death has to be avoided or isolated, sometimes at all cost. For example, this notion that we can beat cancer or other diseases that make us feel uncomfortable if only we take more action has been with us for a long time. In some sense, this narrative gives us hope in the midst of the fact that one day our life ends. Yet such ideas can easily become the snake oil that we try to apply to our wounds of fear. When diagnosed with lung cancer in his mid-thirties, Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgery resident at Stanford, wrote: “The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” How well can we comprehend life without facing our mortality?

Some say that where there is a beginning, there must also be an end. But what if facing that end can also be the new beginning? How might we feel about life today if we could travel into the future and see ourselves at the end of the line? After experiencing their own simulated funerals in South Korea people talk about a sense of freedom and seeing life in a different light. Dying has the most profound way of changing us and bringing us back to life. Accepting our own mortality and that of others may enable us to gain a different perspective and meaning of what makes a life. Facing our mortality takes off the pressure of attaining the demigod status, and instead, help us to embrace a human life.

My personal experience suggests that our death narrative is thin. When my mother died five years ago and then two years later I found myself on the brink of losing my son, it revealed to me that we lost the vocabulary of death and loss. I say ‘we’ because I did not know how to talk about my experience with others… and neither did the people around me. At the same time, I too find it hard to talk about it with those experiencing loss. We treat death as something that should not happen; it’s unfair, it’s wrong. Yet it is something we all face – not in the distant future, but at any time. As a medical student, I began to see the fragility of life, which was rather uncomfortable: one day you see a person on the street, the next in the hospital. We might bury death in our minds, but not in nature. Not to bring this reality into the equation radically alters or skews both our view of life and our choices of family, work, health, relationships and personal development. It seems that the issue with our dominant narrative is that avoiding death at all cost can cost us what we have: a life of growing and flourishing as humans.

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wrote that “without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete”. Death brings wholeness to our lives, and wholeness is necessary for a meaningful and purposeful life, love and leadership. As many cancer doctors will note, their patients often discover a new meaning to their lives when faced with the reality that life ends. Perhaps facing our mortality makes us wiser by stripping off the noise we are bombarded with and focusing on what really matters. In some way, it helps us to refocus and bring clarity of thought and action. Unfortunately, the dominant narrative around us accomplishes the opposite: encouraging us to bury death until it comes back to life just as our life ends. The fear of losing life distorts the richness that life can bring and the depth of personal growth and development we can experience. What if in embracing the ultimate loss wisely it can help us to gain a wiser life?

For our personal growth and development to be truly transformative we could start with the deeper questions of what might be killing our lives. It is as though facing our limits creates a room in our lives where we can ask the pertinent questions: Who am I? What is important in life? How can I lead a good life? To accomplish that we do not need to become poets, psychotherapists, or philosophers… but then again it is fitting to quote a philosopher, Seneca, who encouraged his friend: “life is too short… discern its meaning before it is too late”.

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