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18 Meditate on Our Common Mortality

The Law of Death Denial

Most of us spend our lives avoiding the thought of death. Instead, the inevitability of death should be continually on our minds. Understanding the shortness of life fills us with a sense of purpose and urgency to realize our goals. Training ourselves to confront and accept this reality makes it easier to manage the inevitable setbacks, separations, and crises in life. It gives us a sense of proportion, of what really matters in this brief existence of ours. Most people continually look for ways to separate themselves from others and feel superior. Instead, we must see the mortality in everyone, how it equalizes and connects us all. By becoming deeply aware of our mortality, we intensify our experience of every aspect of life.

The Bullet in the Side

As a child growing up in Savannah, Georgia, Mary Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) felt a strange and powerful connection to her father, Edward. Some of this naturally stemmed from their striking physical resemblance—the same large, piercing eyes, the same facial expressions. But more important to Mary, their whole way of thinking and feeling seemed completely in sync. She could sense this when her father participated in the games she invented—he slipped so naturally into the spirit of it all, and his imagination moved in such a similar direction to her own. They had ways of communicating without ever saying a word.

Mary, an only child, did not feel the same way about her mother, Regina, who came from a socially superior class to her husband and had aspirations of being a figure in local society. The mother wanted to mold her rather bookish and reclusive daughter into the quintessential southern lady, but Mary, stubborn and willful, would not go along. Mary found her mother and relatives a bit formal and superficial. At the age of ten, she wrote a series of caricatures of them, which she called “My Relitives.” In a mischievous spirit, she let her mother and relatives read the vignettes, and they were, naturally, shocked—not only by how they were portrayed but also by the sharp wit of this ten-year-old.

The father, however, found the caricatures delightful. He collected them into a little book that he showed to visitors. He foresaw a great future for his daughter as a writer. Mary knew from early on that she was different from other children, even a bit eccentric, and she basked in the pride he displayed in her unusual qualities.

She understood her father so well that it frightened her when in the summer of 1937 she sensed a change in his energy and spirit. At first it was subtle—rashes on his face, a sudden weariness that came over him in the afternoon. Then he began to take increasingly long naps and suffer frequent bouts of flu, his entire body aching. Occasionally Mary would eavesdrop on her parents as they talked behind closed doors of his ailments, and what she could glean was that something was seriously wrong.

The real estate business her father had started some years earlier was not doing so well, and he had to let it go. A few months later, he was able to land a government job in Atlanta, which did not pay very well. To manage their tight budget Mary and her mother moved into a spacious home owned by relatives in the town of Milledgeville, in the center of Georgia, not too far from Atlanta.

By 1940 the father was too weak to continue at his job. He moved back home, and over the next few months Mary watched as her beloved father grew weaker and thinner by the day, racked by excruciating pain in his joints, until he finally died on February 1, 1941, at the age of forty-five. It was months later that Mary learned that his illness was known as lupus erythematosus—a disease that makes the body create antibodies that attack and weaken its own healthy tissues. (Today it is known as systemic lupus erythematosus, and it is the most severe version of the disease.) In the aftermath of his death, Mary felt too stunned to speak to anyone about the loss, but she confided in a private notebook the effect his death had on her: “The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency, like a bullet in the side. A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.”

She felt as if a part of her had died with her father, so enmeshed had they been in each other’s lives. But beyond the sudden and violent wound it inflicted on her, she was made to wonder about what it all meant in the larger cosmic scheme of things. Deeply devout in her Catholic faith, she imagined that everything occurred for a reason and was part of God’s mysterious plan. Something so significant as her father’s early death could not be meaningless.

In the months to come, a change came over Mary. She became unusually serious and devoted to her schoolwork, something she had been rather indifferent to in the past. She began to write longer and more ambitious stories. She attended a local college for women and impressed her professors with her writing skill and the depth of her thinking. She had determined that her father had guessed correctly her destiny—to be a writer.

Increasingly confident in her creative powers, she decided that her success depended on getting out of Georgia. Living with her mother in Milledgeville made her feel claustrophobic. She applied to the University of Iowa and was accepted with a full scholarship for the academic year beginning in 1945. Her mother begged her to reconsider, thinking her only child was too fragile to live on her own, but Mary had made up her mind. Enrolled in the famous Writers’ Workshop at the university, she decided to simplify her name to Flannery O’Connor, signaling her new identity.

Working with fierce determination and discipline, Flannery began to attract attention for her short stories and the characters from the South she depicted and seemed to know so well, bringing out the dark and grotesque qualities just below the surface of southern gentility. Agents and publishers came calling, and the most prestigious magazines accepted her stories.

After Iowa, Flannery moved to the East Coast, settling in a country house in Connecticut owned by her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, who rented out a room to her. There, without distractions, she began to work feverishly on her first novel. The future seemed so full of promise, and it was all going according to the plan she had laid out for herself after the death of her father.

At Christmas of 1949 she returned to Milledgeville for a visit, and once there she fell quite ill, the doctors diagnosing her with a floating kidney. It would require surgery and some recovery time at home. All she wanted was to get back to Connecticut, to be with her friends, and to finish her novel, which was becoming increasingly ambitious.

Finally, by March, she was able to return, but over the course of the next few months she experienced strange bouts of pain in her arms. She visited doctors in New York, who diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis. That December she was to return to Georgia once again for Christmas, and on the train ride home she fell desperately ill. When she got off the train and was met by her uncle, she could barely walk. She felt as if she had suddenly turned elderly and feeble.

Racked with pain in her joints and suffering high fevers, she was admitted immediately to a hospital. She was told it was a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, and that it would take months to stabilize her; she would have to remain in Milledgeville for an indefinite period. She had little faith in doctors and was not so sure of their diagnosis, but she was far too weak to argue. The fevers made her feel as if she were dying.

To treat her, the doctors gave her massive doses of cortisone, the new miracle drug, which greatly alleviated the pain and the inflammation in her joints. It also gave her bursts of intense energy that troubled her mind and made it race with all kinds of strange thoughts. As a side effect, it also made her hair fall out and bloated her face. And as part of her therapy, she had to have frequent blood transfusions. Her life had suddenly taken a dark turn.

It seemed to her a rather strange coincidence that when the fevers were at their highest, she had the sensation that she was growing blind and paralyzed. Only months before, when she was not yet ill, she had decided to make the main character in her novel blind himself. Had she foreseen her own fate, or had the disease already been there, making her think such thoughts?

Feeling death at her heels and writing at a fast pace while in the hospital, she finished the novel, which she now called Wise Blood, inspired by all of the transfusions she had undergone. The novel concerned a young man, Hazel Motes, determined to spread the gospel of atheism to a new scientific age. He thinks he has “wise blood,” with no need for any kind of spiritual guidance. The novel chronicles his descent into murder and madness and was published in 1952.

After months of hospitalization and having sufficiently recovered at home, Flannery returned to Connecticut for a visit with the Fitzgeralds, hoping that in the near future she could perhaps resume her old life at their country home. One day, as she and Sally were taking a drive in the country, Flannery mentioned her rheumatoid arthritis, and Sally decided to finally tell her the truth that her overprotective mother, in league with the doctors, had kept from her. “Flannery, you don’t have arthritis, you have lupus.” Flannery began to tremble. After a few moments of silence, she replied, “Well, that’s not good news. But I can’t thank you enough for telling me. . . . I thought I had lupus, and I thought I was going crazy. I’d a lot rather be sick than crazy.” Despite her calm reaction, the news stunned her. This was like a second bullet in her side, the original sensation returning with double the impact. Now she knew for sure that she had inherited the disease from her father. Suddenly she had to confront the reality that perhaps she did not have long to live, considering how quickly her father had gone downhill. It was now clear to her that there would be no plans or hopes for living anywhere else but Milledgeville. She cut short the trip to Connecticut and returned home, feeling depressed and confused.

Her mother was now the manager of her family’s farm, called Andalusia, just outside Milledgeville. Flannery would have to spend the rest of her life on this farm with her mother, who would take care of her. The doctors seemed to think she could live a normal length of life thanks to this new miracle drug, but Flannery did not share their confidence, experiencing firsthand the many adverse side effects and wondering how long her body could endure them.

She loved her mother, but they were very different. The mother was the chatty type, obsessed with status and appearances. In her first weeks back, Flannery felt a sense of panic. She had always been willful, like her father. She liked living on her own terms, and her mother could be quite intense and meddlesome. But beyond that, Flannery associated her creative powers with living her own life outside Georgia, encountering the wide world, among peers with whom she could talk about serious matters. She felt her mind expanding with those larger horizons.

Andalusia would feel like a prison, and she worried that her mind would tighten up in these circumstances. But as she contemplated death staring her in the face, she thought deeply about the course of her life. What clearly mattered to her more than friends or where she lived or even her health itself was her writing, expressing all of the ideas and impressions she had accumulated in her short life. She had so many more stories to write, and another novel or two. Perhaps, in some strange way, this forced return home was a blessing in disguise, part of some other plan for her.

In her room at Andalusia, far from the world, she would have no possible distractions. She would make it clear to her mother that those two or more hours of writing in the morning were sacred to her and she would not tolerate any interruptions. Now she could focus all her energy on her work, get even deeper into her characters, and bring them to life. Back in the heart of Georgia, listening closely to visitors and farmhands, she would be able to hear the voices of her characters, their speech patterns, reverberating in her head. She would feel even more deeply connected to the land, to the South, which obsessed her.

As she moved about in these first months back home, she began to feel the presence of her father—in photographs, in objects that he cherished, in notebooks of his that she discovered. His presence haunted her. He had wanted to become a writer; she knew that. Perhaps he had wanted her to succeed where he had failed. Now the fatal disease they shared tied them together even more tightly; she would feel the same form of pain that afflicted his body. But she would write and write, insensitive to the pain, somehow realizing the potential that her father had seen in her as a child.

Thinking in this way, she realized she had no time to waste. How many more years would she live and have the energy and clarity to write? Being so focused on her work would also help rid her of any anxiety about the illness. When she was writing, she could completely forget herself and inhabit her characters. It was a religious-like experience of losing the ego. As she wrote to a friend with the news of her illness, “I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.” There were other blessings to count as well: Knowing early on about her disease, she would have time to get used to the idea of dying young, and it would lessen the blow; she would relish every minute, every experience, and make the most of her limited encounters with outsiders. She could not expect much from life, so everything she got would mean something. No need to complain or feel self-pity—everyone had to die at some point. She would find it easier now to not take so seriously the petty concerns that seemed to roil others so much. She could even look at herself and laugh at her own pretensions as a writer, and mock how ridiculous she looked with her bald head, stumbling around with a cane.

As she returned to writing her stories with a new sense of commitment, Flannery felt another change from within: an increasing awareness of and disgust with the course of life and culture in America in the 1950s. She sensed that people were becoming more and more superficial, obsessed with material things and plagued by boredom, like children. They had become unmoored, soulless, disconnected from the past and from religion, flailing around without any higher sense of purpose. And at the core of these problems was their inability to face their own mortality and the seriousness of it.

She expressed some of this in a story inspired by her own illness, called “The Enduring Chill.” The main character is a young man returning home to Georgia, deathly ill. As he gets off the train, his mother, there to meet him, “had given a little cry; she looked aghast. He was pleased that she should see death in his face at once. His mother, at the age of sixty, was going to be introduced to reality and he supposed that if the experience didn’t kill her, it would assist her in the process of growing up.” As she saw it, people were losing their humanity and capable of all kinds of cruelties. They did not seem to care very deeply about one another and felt rather superior to any kind of outsider. If they could only see what she had seen—how our time is so short, how everyone must suffer and die—it would alter their way of life; it would make them grow up; it would melt all their coldness. What her readers needed was their own “bullet in the side” to shake them out of their complacency. She would accomplish this by portraying in as raw a manner as possible the selfishness and brutality lurking below the surface in her characters, who seemed so outwardly pleasant and banal.

The one problem Flannery had to confront with her new life was the crushing loneliness of it all. She required the company of people to soothe her, and she depended on the cast of characters she met to supply her endless material for her work. As her fame grew with the publication of Wise Blood and her collections of stories, she could count on the occasional visit to the farm from other writers and fans of her work, and she lived for such moments, putting every ounce of her energy into observing her visitors and plumbing their depths.

To fill the gaps between these social encounters, she began a lengthy correspondence with a growing number of friends and fans, writing back to almost anyone who wrote to her. Many of them were quite troubled. There was the young man in the Midwest who felt suicidal and on the verge of madness. There was the brilliant young woman from Georgia, Betty Hester, who felt ashamed for being a lesbian and confided in Flannery, the two of them now regularly corresponding. Flannery never judged any of them, feeling herself to be rather odd and outside the mainstream. To this growing cast of characters and misfits she offered advice and compassion, always entreating them to devote their energies to something outside themselves.

The letters were the perfect medium for Flannery, for it allowed her to keep some physical distance from people; she feared too much intimacy, as it would mean getting attached to those she would soon have to say good-bye to. In this way she slowly built the perfect social world for her purposes.

One spring day in 1953, she received a visit from a tall, handsome twenty-six-year-old man from Denmark named Erik Langkjaier. He was a traveling textbook salesman for a major publisher, his territory including most of the South. He had met a professor at a local college who had offered to introduce him to the great literary figure of Georgia, Flannery O’Connor. From the moment he entered her house, Flannery felt they had some kind of mystical connection. She found Erik very funny and well read. It was indeed rare to meet someone so worldly in this part of Georgia. His life as an itinerant salesman fascinated her; she found it humorous that he carried with him a “Bible,” what those in the business called the loose-leaf binder of promotional materials.

Something about his rootless life struck a chord with her. Like Flannery, Erik’s father had died when he was young. She opened up to him about her own father and the lupus she had inherited. She found Erik attractive and was suddenly self-conscious about her appearance, constantly making jokes about herself. She gave him a copy of Wise Blood, inscribing it, “For Erik, who has wise blood too.”

He began to arrange his travels so that he could pass often through Milledgeville and continue their lively discussions. Flannery looked forward to every visit and felt pangs of emptiness when he left. In May of 1954, on one of his visits he told her he was taking a six-month leave from his job to return to Denmark, and he suggested they take a good-bye car ride through the county, their favorite activity. It was dusk, and in the middle of nowhere he parked the car on the side of the road and leaned over to kiss her, which she gladly accepted. It was short, but for her quite memorable.

She wrote to him regularly and, clearly missing him, kept discreetly referencing their car rides and how much they meant to her. In January 1955, she began a story that seemingly poured out of her in a few days. (Normally she was a careful writer who put stories through several drafts.) She called it “Good Country People.” One of the characters is a cynical young woman with a wooden leg. She is romanced by a traveling salesman of Bibles. She suddenly lets down her guard and allows him to seduce her, playing her own game with him. As they are about to make love in a hayloft, he begs her to remove her wooden leg, as a sign of her trust. This seems far too intimate and a violation of all her defenses, but she relents. He then runs away with the leg, never to return.

In the back of her mind she was aware that Erik was somehow extending his stay in Europe. The story was her way of coping with this, caricaturing the two of them as the salesman and the cynical crippled daughter who had let down her guard. Erik had taken her wooden leg. By April she felt his absence rather keenly and wrote to him, “I feel like if you were here we could talk about a million things without stopping.” But the day after she mailed this she received a letter from him announcing his engagement to a Danish woman, and he told her of their plans to return to the States, where he would take up his old job.

She had intuited such an event would happen, but the news was a shock nonetheless. She replied with utmost politeness, congratulating him, and they wrote to each other for several more years, but she could not get over this loss so easily. She had tried to protect herself from any deep feelings of parting and separation because they were too unbearable for her. They were like small reminders of the death that would take her away at any moment, while others would go on living and loving. And now those very feelings of separation came pouring in.

Now she knew what it was like to experience unrequited love, but for her it was different—she knew that this was the last such chance for her and that her life was to be led essentially alone, and it made it all doubly poignant. She had trained herself to look death square in the eye, so why should she recoil from facing this latest form of suffering? She understood what she had to do—transmute this painful experience into more stories and into her second novel, to use it as means to enrich her knowledge of people and their vulnerabilities.

In the next few years the drugs began to take a toll, as the cortisone softened her hip and jawbone and made her arms often too weak to type. She soon needed crutches to get around. Sunlight had become her nemesis, as it could reactivate the lupus rashes, and so to take walks she had to cover every inch of her body, even in the stifling heat of the summer. The doctors tried to remove her from the cortisone to give her body some relief, and this lowered her energy and made the writing that much harder.

Under all the duress of the past few years, she had managed to publish two novels and several collections of short stories; she was considered one of the great American writers of her time, although still so young. But suddenly she began to feel worn down and inarticulate. She wrote to a friend in the spring of 1962, “I’ve been writing for sixteen years and I have the sense of having exhausted my original potentiality and being now in need of the kind of grace that deepens perception.” One day shortly before Christmas of 1963, she suddenly fainted and was taken to the hospital. The doctors diagnosed her with anemia and began a series of blood transfusions to revive her. She was too weak now to even sit at her typewriter. Then a few months later they discovered a benign tumor that they needed to remove. Their only fear was that the trauma of the surgery would somehow reactivate the lupus and the powerful episodes of fevers that she had experienced ten years before.

In letters to friends, she made light of it all. Strangely enough, now that she was at her weakest, she found the inspiration to write more stories and prepare a new collection of them for fall publication. In the hospital she studied her nurses closely and found material for some new characters. When the doctors prohibited her from working, she concocted stories in her head and memorized them. She hid notebooks under her pillow. She had to keep writing.

The surgery was a success, but by mid-March it was clear that her lupus had come roaring back. She compared it to a wolf (lupus is Latin for “wolf”) raging inside her now, tearing things up. Her hospital stay was extended, and yet despite it all, she managed here and there to get in her daily two hours, hiding her work from the nurses and doctors. She was in a hurry to scratch out these last stories before it was all over.

Finally, on June 21, she was allowed to return home, and in the back of her mind she sensed the end was coming, the memory of her father’s last days so vivid within her. Pain or no pain, she had to work, to finish the stories and revisions she had started. If she could manage only an hour a day, so be it. She had to squeeze out every last bit of consciousness that remained to her and make use of it. She had realized her destiny as a writer and had led a life of incomparable richness. She had nothing now to complain about or regret, except the unfinished stories.

On July 31, while watching the summer rain by her window, she suddenly lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital. She died in the early hours of August 3, at the age of thirty-nine. In accordance with her last wishes, Flannery was buried next to her father.

• • •

Interpretation: In the years after the onset of lupus, Flannery O’Connor noticed a peculiar phenomenon: In her interactions with friends, visitors, and correspondents, she often found herself playing the role of the adviser, giving people guidance on how to live, where to put their energies, how to remain calm amid difficulties and have a sense of purpose. All the while, she was the one who was dying and dealing with severe physical restrictions.

She sensed that increasing numbers of people in this world had lost their way. They could not wholeheartedly commit themselves to their work or to relationships. They were always dabbling in this or that, searching for new pleasures and distractions but feeling rather empty inside. They tended to fall apart in the face of adversity or loneliness, and they turned to her as someone solid who would be able to tell them the truth about themselves and give them some direction.

As she saw it, the difference between her and these other people was simple: She had spent year after year looking death squarely in the eye without flinching. She did not indulge in vague hopes for the future, put her trust in medicine, or drown her sorrows in alcohol or addiction. She accepted the early death sentence imposed on her, using it for her own ends.

For Flannery, her proximity to death was a call to stir herself to action, to feel a sense of urgency, to deepen her religious faith and spark her sense of wonder at all mysteries and uncertainties of life. She used the closeness of death to teach her what really matters and to help her steer clear of the petty squabbles and concerns that plagued others. She used it to anchor herself in the present, to make her appreciate every moment and every encounter.

Knowing that that her illness had a purpose to it, there was no need to feel self-pity. And by confronting and dealing with it straight on, she could toughen herself up, manage the pain that racked her body, and keep writing. By the time she had received yet another bullet, the separation with Erik, she could regain her balance after several months, without turning bitter or more reclusive.

What this meant was that she was thoroughly at home with the ultimate reality represented by death. In contrast, so many other people, including those she knew, suffered from a reality deficit, avoiding the thought of their mortality and the other unpleasant aspects of life.

Focusing so deeply on her mortality had one other important advantage—it deepened her empathy and sense of connection to people. She had a peculiar relationship to death in general: It did not represent a fate reserved for her alone but rather was intimately tied to her father. Their sufferings and deaths were intertwined. She saw her own nearness to death as a call to take this further, to see that all of us are connected through our common mortality and made equal by it. It is the fate we all share and should draw us closer for that reason. It should shake us out of any sense of feeling superior or separated.

Flannery’s increased empathy and feeling of unity with others, as evidenced by her strong desire to communicate with all types of people, caused her to eventually let go of one of her greatest limitations: the racist sentiments toward African Americans she had internalized from her mother and many others in the South. She saw this clearly in herself and struggled against it, particularly in her work. By the early 1960s she came to embrace the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. And in her later stories she began to express a vision of all the races in America converging one day as equals, moving past this dark stain on our country’s past.

For over thirteen years, Flannery O’Connor stared down the barrel of the gun pointed at her, refusing to look away. Certainly her religious faith helped her maintain her spirit, but as Flannery herself knew, so many people who are religious are just as full of illusions and evasions when it comes to their own mortality, and just as capable of complacency and pettiness as anyone else. It was her particular choice to use her fatal disease as the means for living the most intense and fulfilling life possible.

Understand: We tend to read stories like Flannery O’Connor’s with some distance. We can’t help but feel some relief that we find ourselves in a much more comfortable position. But we make a grave mistake in doing so. Her fate is our fate—we are all in the process of dying, all facing the same uncertainties. In fact, by having her mortality so present and palpable, she had an advantage over us—she was compelled to confront death and make use of her awareness of it.

We, on the other hand, are able to dance around the thought, to envision endless vistas of time ahead of us and dabble our way through life. And then, when reality hits us, when we perhaps receive our own bullet in the side in the form of an unexpected crisis in our career, or a painful breakup in a relationship, or the death of someone close, or even our own life-threatening illness—we are not usually prepared to handle it.

Our avoidance of the thought of death has established our pattern for handling other unpleasant realities and adversity. We easily become hysterical and lose our balance, blaming others for our fate, feeling angry and sorry for ourselves, or we opt for distractions and quick ways to dull the pain. This becomes a habit we cannot shake, and we tend to feel the generalized anxiety and emptiness that come from all this avoidance.

Before this becomes a lifelong pattern, we must shake ourselves out of this dreamlike state in a real and lasting way. We must come to look at our own mortality without flinching, and without fooling ourselves with some fleeting, abstract meditation on death. We must focus hard on the uncertainty that death represents—it could come tomorrow, as could other adversity or separation. We must stop postponing our awareness. We need to stop feeling superior and special, seeing that death is a fate shared by us all and something that should bind us in a deeply empathetic way. We are all a part of the brotherhood and sisterhood of death.

In doing so, we set a much different course for our lives. Making death a familiar presence, we understand how short life is and what really should matter to us. We feel a sense of urgency and deeper commitment to our work and relationships. When we face a crisis, separation, or illness, we do not feel so terrified and overwhelmed. We don’t feel the need to go into avoidance mode. We can accept that life involves pain and suffering, and we use such moments to strengthen ourselves and to learn. And as with Flannery, the awareness of our mortality cleanses us of silly illusions and intensifies every aspect of our experience.

When I look back at the past and think of all the time I squandered in error and idleness, lacking the knowledge needed to live, when I think of how often I sinned against my heart and my soul, then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute could have been an eternity of happiness! If youth only knew! Now my life will change; now I will be reborn. Dear brother, I swear that I shall not lose hope. I will keep my soul pure and my heart open. I will be reborn for the better.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Keys to Human Nature

If we could step back and somehow examine the train of our daily thoughts, we would realize how they tend to circle around the same anxieties, fantasies, and resentments, like a continuous loop. Even when we take a walk or have a conversation with someone, we generally remain connected to this interior monologue, only half listening and paying attention to what we see or hear.

Upon occasion, however, certain events can trigger a different quality of thinking and feeling. Let us say we go on a trip to a foreign land we have never visited before, outside our usual comfort zone. Suddenly our senses snap to life and everything we see and hear seems a little more vibrant. To avoid problems or dangerous situations in this unfamiliar place, we have to pay attention.

Similarly, if we are about to leave on a trip and must say good-bye to people we love, whom we may not see for a while, we might suddenly view them in a different light. Normally we take such people for granted, but now we actually look at the particular expressions on their faces and listen to what they have to say. The sense of a looming separation makes us more emotional and attentive.

A more intense version of this will occur if a loved one—a parent or a partner or a sibling—dies. This person played a large role in our lives; we have internalized them, and we have somehow lost a part of ourselves. As we grapple with this, the shadow of our own mortality falls over us for an instant. We are made aware of the permanence of this loss and feel regret that we did not appreciate them more. We may even feel some anger that life simply goes on for other people, that they are oblivious to the reality of death that has suddenly struck us.

For several days or perhaps weeks after this loss, we tend to experience life differently. Our emotions are rawer and more sensitive. Particular stimuli will bring back associations with the person who has died. This intensity of emotion will fade, but each time we are reminded of the person we have lost, a small portion of that intensity will return.

If we consider death as the crossing of a threshold that terrifies us in general, the experiences enumerated above are intimations of our own death in smaller doses. Separating from people we know, traveling in a strange land, clearly entering some new phase of life, all involve changes that cause us to look back at the past as if a part of us has died. In such moments, and during the more intense forms of grief from actual deaths, we notice a heightening of the senses and a deepening of our emotions. Thoughts of a different order come to us. We are more attentive. We can say that our experience of life is qualitatively different and charged, as if we temporarily became someone else. Of course, this alteration in our thinking, feeling, and senses will be strongest if we ourselves survive a brush with death. Nothing seems the same after such an experience.

Let us call this the paradoxical death effect—these moments and encounters have the paradoxical result of making us feel more awake and alive. We can explain the paradoxical effect in the following way.

For us humans, death is a source not only of fear but also of awkwardness. We are the only animal truly conscious of our impending mortality. In general, we owe our power as a species to our ability to think and reflect. But in this particular case, our thinking brings us nothing but misery. All we can see is the physical pain involved in dying, the separation from loved ones, and the uncertainty as to when such a moment might arrive. We do what we can to avoid the thought, to distract ourselves from the reality, but the awareness of death lies in the back of our minds and can never be completely shaken.

Feeling the unconscious impulse to somehow soften the blow of our awareness, our earliest ancestors created a world of spirits, gods, and some concept of the afterlife. The belief in the afterlife helped mitigate the fear of death and even give it some appealing aspects. It could not eliminate the anxiety of separating from loved ones or lessen the physical pain involved, but it offered a profound psychological compensation for the anxieties we seemingly cannot shake. This effect was fortified by all of the elaborate and pleasing rituals that surrounded the passage to death.

In the world today, our growing reasoning powers and knowledge of science have only made our awkwardness worse. Many of us can no longer believe in the concept of the afterlife with any conviction, but we are left with no compensations, with only the stark reality confronting us. We might try to put a brave face on this, to pretend we can accept this reality as adults, but we cannot erase our elemental fears so easily. In the course of a few hundred years of this change in our awareness, we cannot suddenly transform one of the deepest parts of our nature, our fear of death. And so what we do instead of creating belief systems such as an afterlife is to rely on denial, repressing the awareness of death as much as possible. We do so in several ways.

In the past, death was a daily and visceral presence in cities and towns, something hard to escape. By a certain age, most people had seen firsthand the deaths of others. Today, in many parts of the world, we have made death largely invisible, something that occurs only in hospitals. (We have done something similar to the animals that we eat.) We can pass through most of life without ever physically witnessing what happens. This gives a rather unreal aspect to what is so profoundly a part of life. This unreality is enhanced in the entertainment we consume, in which death is made to seem rather cartoonish, with dozens of people dying violent deaths without any attendant emotion except excitement at the imagery on the screen. This reveals how deep the need is to repress the awareness and desensitize ourselves to the fear.

Furthermore, we have recently come to venerate youth, to create a virtual cult around it. Objects that have aged, films from the past unconsciously remind us of the shortness of life and the fate that awaits us. We find ways to avoid them, to surround ourselves with what is new, fresh, and trending. Some people have even come to entertain the idea that through technology we can somehow overcome death itself, the ultimate in human denial. In general, technology gives us the feeling that we have such godlike powers that we can prolong life and ignore the reality for quite a long time. In this sense, we are no stronger than our most primitive ancestors. We have simply found new ways to delude ourselves.

As a corollary to all this, we find hardly anyone willing to discuss the subject as a personal reality we all face, and how we might manage it in a healthier manner. The subject is simply taboo. And by a law of human nature, when we go so far in our denial, the paradoxical effect takes hold of us in the negative direction, making our life more constrained and deathlike.

We became aware of our mortality quite early on in childhood, and this filled us with an anxiety that we cannot remember but that was very real and visceral. Such anxiety cannot be wished away or denied. It sits in us as adults in a powerfully latent form. When we choose to repress the thought of death, our anxiety is only made stronger by our not confronting the source of it. The slightest incident or uncertainty about the future will tend to stir up this anxiety and even make it chronic. To fight this, we will tend to narrow down the scope of our thoughts and activities; if we don’t leave our comfort zones in what we think and do, then we can make life rather predictable and feel less vulnerable to anxiety. Certain addictions to foods or stimulants or forms of entertainment will have a similar dulling effect.

If we take this far enough, we become increasingly self-absorbed and less dependent on people, who often stir up our anxieties with their unpredictable behavior.

We can describe the contrast between life and death in the following manner: Death is absolute stillness, without movement or change except decay. In death we are separated from others and completely alone. Life on the other hand is movement, connection to other living things, and diversity of life forms. By denying and repressing the thought of death, we feed our anxieties and become more deathlike from within—separated from other people, our thinking habitual and repetitive, with little overall movement and change. On the other hand, the familiarity and closeness with death, the ability to confront the thought of it has the paradoxical effect of making us feel more alive, as the story of Flannery O’Connor well illustrates.

By connecting to the reality of death, we connect more profoundly to the reality and fullness of life. By separating death from life and repressing our awareness of it, we do the opposite.

What we require in the modern world is a way to create for ourselves the positive paradoxical effect. The following is an attempt to help us accomplish this, by forging a practical philosophy for transforming the consciousness of our mortality into something productive and life enhancing.

A Philosophy of Life Through Death

The problem for us humans is that we are aware of our mortality, but we are afraid to take this awareness further. It is like we are at the shore of a vast ocean and stop ourselves from exploring it, even turning our back to it. The purpose of our consciousness is to always take it as far as we can. That is the source of our power as a species, what we are called to do. The philosophy we are adopting depends on our ability to go in the opposite direction we normally feel toward death—to look at it more closely and deeply, to leave the shore and explore a different way of approaching life and death, taking this as far as we can.

The following are five key strategies, with appropriate exercises, to help us achieve this. It is best to put all five into practice, so that this philosophy can seep into our daily consciousness and alter our experience from within.

Make the awareness visceral. Out of fear, we convert death into an abstraction, a thought we can entertain now and then or repress. But life is not a thought; it is a flesh-and-blood reality, something we feel from within. There is no such thing as life without death. Our mortality is just as much a flesh-and-blood reality as life. From the moment we are born, it is a presence within our bodies, as our cells die and we age. We need to experience it this way. We should not see this as something morbid or terrifying. Moving past this block of ours in which death is an abstraction has an immensely liberating effect, connecting us more physically to the world around us and heightening our senses.

In December of 1849, the twenty-seven-year-old writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, imprisoned for participating in an alleged conspiracy against the Russian czar, found himself and his fellow prisoners suddenly transported to a square in St. Petersburg, and told that they were about to be executed for their crimes. This death sentence was totally unexpected. Dostoyevsky had only a few minutes to prepare himself before he faced the firing squad. In those few minutes, emotions he had never felt before came rushing in. He noticed the rays of light hitting the dome of a cathedral and saw that all life was as fleeting as those rays. Everything seemed more vibrant to him. He noticed the expressions on his fellow prisoners’ faces, and how he could see the terror behind their brave façades. It was as if their thoughts and feelings had become transparent.

At the last moment, a representative from the czar rode into the square, announcing that their sentences had been commuted to several years’ hard labor in Siberia. Utterly overwhelmed by his psychological brush with death, Dostoyevsky felt reborn. And the experience remained embedded in him for the rest of his life, inspiring new depths of empathy and intensifying his observational powers. This has been the experience of others who have been exposed to death in a deep and personal way.

The reason for this effect can be explained as follows: Normally we go through life in a very distracted, dreamlike state, with our gaze turned inward. Much of our mental activity revolves around fantasies and resentments that are completely internal and have little relationship to reality. The proximity of death suddenly snaps us to attention as our whole body responds to the threat. We feel the rush of adrenaline, the blood pumping extra hard to the brain and through the nervous system. This focuses the mind to a much higher level and we notice new details, see people’s faces in a new light, and sense the impermanence in everything around us, deepening our emotional responses. This effect can linger for years, even decades.

We cannot reproduce that experience without risking our lives, but we can gain some of the effect through smaller doses. We must begin by meditating on our death and seeking to convert it into something more real and physical. For Japanese samurai warriors, the center of our most sensitive nerves and our connection to life was in the gut, the viscera; it was also the center of our connection to death, and they meditated on this sensation as deeply as possible, to create physical death awareness. But beyond the gut, we can also feel something similar in our bones when we are weary. We can often sense its physicality in those moments before we fall asleep—for a few seconds we feel ourselves passing from one form of consciousness to another, and that slip has a deathlike sensation. There is nothing to be afraid of in this; in fact, in moving in this direction, we make major advancements in diminishing our chronic anxiety.

We can use our imagination in this as well, by envisioning the day our death arrives, where we might be, how it might come. We must make this as vivid as possible. It could be tomorrow. We can also try to look at the world as if we were seeing things for the last time—the people around us, the everyday sights and sounds, the hum of the traffic, the sound of the birds, the view outside our window. Let us imagine these things still going on without us, then suddenly feel ourselves brought back to life—those same details will now appear in a new light, not taken for granted or half perceived. Let the impermanence of all life forms sink in. The stability and solidity of the things we see are mere illusions.

We must not be afraid of the pangs of sadness that ensue from this perception. The tightness of our emotions, usually so wound up around our own needs and concerns, is now opening up to the world and to the poignancy of life itself, and we should welcome this. As the fourteenth-century Japanese writer Kenko noted, “If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.” Awaken to the shortness of life. When we unconsciously disconnect ourselves from the awareness of death, we forge a particular relationship to time—one that is rather loose and distended. We come to imagine that we always have more time than is the reality. Our minds drift to the future, where all our hopes and wishes will be fulfilled. If we have a plan or a goal, we find it hard to commit to it with a lot of energy. We’ll get to it tomorrow, we tell ourselves. Perhaps we are tempted in the present to work on another goal or plan—they all seem so inviting and different, so how can we commit fully to one or another? We experience a generalized anxiety, as we sense the need to get things done, but we are always postponing and scattering our forces.

Then, if a deadline is forced upon us on a particular project, that dreamlike relationship to time is shattered and for some mysterious reason we find the focus to get done in days what would have taken weeks or months. The change imposed upon us by the deadline has a physical component: our adrenaline is pumping, filling us with energy and concentrating the mind, making it more creative. It is invigorating to feel the total commitment of mind and body to a single purpose, something we rarely experience in the world today, in our distracted state.

We must think of our mortality as a kind of continual deadline, giving a similar effect as described above to all our actions in life. We must stop fooling ourselves: we could die tomorrow, and even if we live for another eighty years, it is but a drop in the ocean of the vastness of time, and it passes always more quickly than we imagine. We have to awaken to this reality and make it a continual meditation.

This meditation might lead some people to think, “Why bother to try anything? What’s the point of so much effort, when in the end we just die? Better to live for the pleasures of the moment.” This is not, however, a realistic assessment but merely another form of evasion. To devote ourselves to pleasures and distractions is to avoid the thought of their costs and to imagine we can fool death by drowning out the thought. In devoting ourselves to pleasures, we must always look for new diversions to keep boredom at bay, and it’s exhausting. We must also see our needs and desires as more important than anything else. This starts to feel soulless over time, and our ego becomes particularly prickly if we don’t get our way.

As the years go by, we become increasingly bitter and resentful, haunted with the sense we have accomplished nothing and wasted our potential. As William Hazlitt observed, “Our repugnance to death increases in proportion to our consciousness of having lived in vain.”

Let the awareness of the shortness of life clarify our daily actions. We have goals to reach, projects to get done, relationships to improve. This could be our last such project, our last battle on earth, given the uncertainties of life, and we must commit completely to what we do. With this continual awareness we can see what really matters, how petty squabbles and side pursuits are irritating distractions. We want that sense of fulfillment that comes from getting things done. We want to lose the ego in that feeling of flow, in which our minds are at one with what we are working on. When we turn away from our work, the pleasures and distractions we pursue have all the more meaning and intensity, knowing their evanescence.

See the mortality in everyone. In 1665 a terrible plague roared through London, killing close to 100,000 inhabitants. The writer Daniel Defoe was only five years old at the time, but he witnessed the plague firsthand and it left a lasting impression on him. Some sixty years later, he decided to re-create the events in London that year through the eyes of an older narrator, using his own memories, much research, and the journal of his uncle, creating the book A Journal of the Plague Year.

As the plague raged, the narrator of the book notices a peculiar phenomenon: people tend to feel much greater levels of empathy toward their fellow Londoners; the normal differences between them, particularly over religious issues, vanish. “Here we may observe,” he writes, “. . . that a near View of Death would soon reconcile Men of good Principles, one to another, and that it is chiefly owing to our easy Scituation in Life, and our putting these Things far from us, that our Breaches are fomented, ill blood continued. . . . Another Plague Year would reconcile all these Differences, a close conversing with Death, or with Diseases that threaten Death, would scum off the Gall from our Tempers, remove the Animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing Eyes.” There are plenty of examples of what seems to be the opposite—humans slaughtering thousands of fellow humans, often in war, with the sight of such mass deaths not stimulating the slightest sense of empathy. But in these cases, the slaughterers feel separate from those they are killing, whom they have come to see as less than human and under their power. With the plague, no one is spared, no matter their wealth or station in life. Everyone is equally at risk. Feeling personally vulnerable and seeing the vulnerability of everyone else, people’s normal sense of difference and privilege is melted away, and an uncommon generalized empathy emerges. This could be a natural state of mind, if we could only envision the vulnerability and mortality of others as not separate from our own.

With our philosophy, we want to manufacture the cleansing effect that the plague has on our tribal tendencies and usual self-absorption. We want to begin this on a smaller scale, by looking first at those around us, in our home and our workplace, seeing and imagining their deaths and noting how this can suddenly alter our perception of them. As Schopenhauer wrote, “The deep pain that is felt at the death of every friendly soul arises from the feeling that there is in every individual something which is inexpressible, peculiar to him or her alone, and is, therefore, absolutely and inextricably lost.” We want to see that uniqueness of the other person in the present, bringing out those qualities we have taken for granted. We want to experience their vulnerability to pain and death, not just our own.

We can take this meditation further. Let us look at the pedestrians in any busy city and realize that in ninety years it is likely that none of them will be alive, including us. Think of the millions and billions who have already come and gone, buried and long forgotten, rich and poor alike. Such thoughts make it hard to maintain our own sense of grand importance, the feeling that we are special and that the pain we may suffer is not the same as others’.

The more we can create this visceral connection to people through our common mortality, the better we are able to handle human nature in all its varieties with tolerance and grace. This does not mean we lose our alertness to those who are dangerous and difficult. In fact, seeing the mortality and vulnerability in even the nastiest individual can help us cut them down to size and deal with them from a more neutral and strategic space, not taking their nastiness personally.

In general, we can say that the specter of death is what impels us toward our fellow humans and makes us avid for love. Death and love are inextricably interconnected. The ultimate separation and disintegration represented by death drive us to unite and integrate ourselves with others. Our unique consciousness of death has created our particular form of love. And through a deepening of our death awareness we will only strengthen this impulse, and rid ourselves of the divisions and lifeless separations that afflict humanity.

Embrace all pain and adversity. Life by its nature involves pain and suffering. And the ultimate form of this is death itself. In the face of this reality, we humans have a simple choice: We can try to avoid painful moments and to muffle their effect by distracting ourselves, by taking drugs or engaging in addictive behavior. We can also restrict what we do—if we don’t try too hard in our work, if we lower our ambitions, we won’t expose ourselves to failure and ridicule. If we break off relationships early on, we can elude any sharp, painful moments from the separation.

At the root of this approach is the fear of death itself, which establishes our elemental relationship to pain and adversity, and avoidance becomes our pattern. When bad things happen, our natural reaction is to complain about what life is bringing us, or what others are not doing for us, and to retreat even further from challenging situations. The negative paradoxical death effect takes hold.

The other choice available to us is to commit ourselves to what Friedrich Nietzsche called amor fati (“love of fate”): “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens of necessity . . . but to love it.”

What this means is the following: There is much in life we cannot control, with death as the ultimate example of this. We will experience illness and physical pain. We will go through separations with people. We will face failures from our own mistakes and the nasty malevolence of our fellow humans. And our task is to accept these moments, and even embrace them, not for the pain but for the opportunities to learn and strengthen ourselves. In doing so, we affirm life itself, accepting all of its possibilities. And at the core of this is our complete acceptance of death.

We put this into practice by continually seeing events as fateful—everything happens for a reason, and it is up to us to glean the lesson. When we fall ill, we see such moments as the perfect opportunity to retreat from the world and get away from its distractions, to slow down, to reassess what we are doing, and to appreciate the much more frequent periods of good health. Being able to accustom ourselves to some degree of physical pain, without immediately reaching for something to dull it, is an important life skill.

When people resist our will or turn against us, we try to assess what we did wrong, to figure out how we can use this to educate ourselves further in human nature and teach ourselves how to handle those who are slippery and disagreeable. When we take risks and fail, we welcome the chance to learn from the experience. When relationships fail, we try to see what was wrong in the dynamic, what was missing for us, and what we want from the next relationship. We don’t cocoon ourselves from further pain by avoiding such experiences.

In all of these cases, we will of course experience physical and mental pain, and we must not fool ourselves that this philosophy will instantly turn the negative into a positive. We know that it is a process and that we must take the blows, but that as time passes our minds will go to work converting this into a learning experience. With practice, it becomes easier and quicker to convert.

This love of fate has the power to alter everything we experience and lighten the burdens we carry. Why complain over this or that, when in fact we see such events as occurring for a reason and ultimately enlightening us? Why feel envy for what others have, when we possess something far greater—the ultimate approach to the harsh realities of life?

Open the mind to the Sublime. Think of death as a kind of threshold we all must cross. As such, it represents the ultimate mystery. We cannot possibly find the words or concepts to express what it is. We confront something that is truly unknowable. No amount of science or technology or expertise can solve this riddle or verbalize it. We humans can fool ourselves that we know just about everything, but at this threshold we are finally left dumb and groping.

This confrontation with something we cannot know or verbalize is what we shall call the Sublime, whose Latin root means “up to the threshold.” The Sublime is anything that exceeds our capacity for words or concepts by being too large, too vast, too dark and mysterious. And when we face such things, we feel a touch of fear but also awe and wonder. We are reminded of our smallness, of what is much vaster and more powerful than our puny will. Feeling the Sublime is the perfect antidote to our complacency and to the petty concerns of daily life that can consume us and leave us feeling rather empty.

The model for feeling the Sublime comes in our meditation on mortality, but we can train our minds to experience it through other thoughts and actions. For instance, when we look up at the night sky, we can let our minds try to fathom the infinity of space and the overwhelming smallness of our planet, lost in all the darkness. We can encounter the Sublime by thinking about the origin of life on earth, how many billions of years ago this occurred, perhaps at some particular moment, and how unlikely it was, considering the thousands of factors that had to converge for the experiment of life to begin on this planet. Such vast amounts of time and the actual origin of life exceed our capacity to conceptualize them, and we are left with a sensation of the Sublime.

We can take this further: Several million years ago, the human experiment began as we branched off from our primate ancestors. But because of our weak physical nature and small numbers, we faced the continual threat of extinction. If that more-than-likely event had happened—as it had occurred for so many species, including other varieties of humans—the world would have taken a much different turn. In fact, the meeting of our own parents and our birth hung on a series of chance encounters that were equally unlikely. This causes us to view our present existence as an individual, something we take for granted, as a most improbable occurrence, considering all of the fortuitous elements that had to fall into place.

We can experience the Sublime by contemplating other forms of life. We have our own belief about what is real based on our nervous and perceptual systems, but the reality of bats, which perceive through echolocation, is of a different order. They sense things beyond our perceptual system. What are the other elements we cannot perceive, the other realities invisible to us? (The latest discoveries in most branches of science will have this eye-opening effect, and reading articles in any popular scientific journal will generally yield a few sublime thoughts.) We can also expose ourselves to places on the planet where all our normal compass points are scrambled—a vastly different culture or certain landscapes where the human element seems particularly puny, such as the open sea, a vast expanse of snow, a particularly enormous mountain. Physically confronted with what dwarfs us, we are forced to reverse our normal perception, in which we are the center and measure of everything.

In the face of the Sublime, we feel a shiver, a foretaste of death itself, something too large for our minds to encompass. And for a moment it shakes us out of our smugness and releases us from the deathlike grip of habit and banality.

In the end, think of this philosophy in the following terms: Since the beginning of human consciousness, our awareness of death has terrified us. This terror has shaped our beliefs, our religions, our institutions, and so much of our behavior in ways we cannot see or understand. We humans have become the slaves to our fears and our evasions.

When we turn this around, becoming more aware of our mortality, we experience a taste of true freedom. We no longer feel the need to restrict what we think and do, in order to make life predictable. We can be more daring without feeling afraid of the consequences. We can cut loose from all the illusions and addictions that we employ to numb our anxiety. We can commit fully to our work, to our relationships, to all our actions. And once we experience some of this freedom, we will want to explore further and expand our possibilities as far as time will allow us.

Let us rid death of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects. . . . It is uncertain where death awaits us; let us await it everywhere. Premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom. . . . He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint.

—Michel de Montaigne

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