Week 23: The Dots and Dashes of Life And Death

I do not possess the wisdom or expertise to decode Life or Death. I learn, unlearn, and relearn every day. I grow. I evolve.

Why do I want to talk about Death? Because we do not talk about it enough. Death makes us uncomfortable. We do not want to visualise a world where we do not exist. When it comes to others, it is disconcerting to think that someone who is thinking about Death is possibly feeling dejected and low in spirits. We distract them or sometimes even forbid them to talk about it. I have only recently made course correction in this regard. I feel that when someone is thinking about Death and wants to talk about it, they should be encouraged. By patronizing them (“You think too much”) or trivialising their thoughts (“Don’t be silly!”) or even showing disdain (“I don’t know why you think about these things all the time”), we only succeed in encouraging them to bottle up their feelings and refrain from expressing themselves. They start to nurture the feeling of being misunderstood. Instead, we should let them talk about their feelings, like the eponymous Morrie of Tuesdays with Morrie. In fact, it was another Mitch Albom book (The Five People You Meet in Heaven) that got me thinking about Death. Around the same time, I had also read Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian that has left a deep cleft in my heart. They are three very different kinds of books and I ended up going through a roller coaster ride to learn a few lessons about Life by meditating on Death.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay 

Thoughts about my mortality

  • Lesson 1: Life is a contradiction. It says yes and no in the same breath.

A thought crossed my mind one fine day, sometime last week. I began to suddenly feel hopeless and could not see any point of any of this anymore. Before you get alarmed, let me qualify that sentence by saying that although the thought sounds very dark and sinister, it wasn’t. It was like a light bulb moment! I realised to my continued chagrin that the idea of Death does not motivate me. Steve Jobs has famously said that he would wake up every morning, look into the mirror and ask himself

If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?

Steve Jobs

And if the answer had been ‘No’ for too many days, then he knew he would have to change something. I find that thought profound but at the same time, not practical enough for me. Yeah, I know! GASP! Right? But hear me out. I don’t find the thought of Death motivating. If today was the last day of my life, I would accept it with grace. I would not try and put a check on my Bucket List. I would call up all my family and friends and say goodbye. I would lie down and look back on my life to relive the happy moments, forgive myself and others over mistakes, seek their forgiveness, and surrender to the inevitable. So, the next question that I arrived at was ‘If one day we are all going to die then what is the point of this all?’ But that thought did not disturb me. I was not contemplating dying. I was in a state of limbo where neither could I find the motivation to go on nor was I ready to give up. So, I decided to talk to my friends. Most of them said that the purpose of a purpose in life was to be happy, make others happy, and as a result, create meaning. But at the point of my death, everything that I have done – all the effort and all the hard work will come to nought. So, why are we even bothering ourselves with all this?

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Aerial view of my life

  • Lesson 2: Life seems unfair (because we can only see one piece of the jigsaw puzzle) but nothing happens without a reason.

Two conversations helped me shape my thoughts. One I had with a dear old friend, who in her quintessential style of being economical with words, said, “You have to focus on every day because otherwise everything will be over before the end.” And the second insight was given by my better half, who said something which I interpreted in my mind with Space analogy as ‘You are looking at your life like a black hole, but you are ignoring to look at the rest of the beautiful universe.’ I thought about this deep and hard. At first, my mind kept going in circles, but with time and by practicing some walking meditation, I understood that by focussing on the forest, I was ignoring the trees. If I continue to think about the larger picture, about the end of my life, then I will be missing out on the tiny moments that will comprise my life.  

I was thinking about that one moment in time when I would become nothing but a blip, I was looking at the world from somewhere high, where I had become nothing. It was as if, I could see the world below, the topography. I was focusing on myself, my being as nothing. I was non-existent. And I thought that if I was going to be nothing, then what is the point of this view? But what I was looking down on, the aerial map of my personal world – in that map, I had made some contribution, no matter how insignificant. Even if that impact is about leaving an impression in the mind of one person and one person only, then why should “one” be unimportant? If everyone would be a Jane Goodall, or an Emilia Earhart, or a Sarojini Naidu; then this world would not be so beautiful. It is beautiful only because it is a patchwork of different colours. Some of these colours stand out and some blend into others and from a bird’s eye view, we cannot see the stitching. Our lives are connected to each other in ways that we cannot even imagine. So, I should not lament the wastage of my life. My life is not a waste. I might not have an impact as great as these great minds but that does not mean that I am nothing. I am something to someone and I should focus my attention on making my life meaningful because every journey matters.

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The Bite-Size Approach

  • Lesson 3: Focus on the minuscule but don’t sweat the small stuff.

I believe it is important to be aware of one’s mortality. Instead of pushing the thought of Death under the carpet, it is important that we know and acknowledge its inevitability. But the focus should not be on Death. Life should be under the spotlight. The only way to keep the conversation about Life going is to think about piecemeal. I realised that everything felt meaningless because as humans, we do not have the power to fathom the vastness of this universe. We are truly insignificant beings and the only way to live Life as we know it, is to put one foot before the other.

I was looking at life as a culmination. I was focussing at the end. But what is it a culmination of? It is a culmination of events, memories, relationships, emotions, and feelings of the everyday, one tiny fraction at a time. I was looking at the moment when the curtain falls but I was not looking at the play called Life. Life is about actors, the dialogues between them, about the light, the background music, and the props. Life is about the audience, the sound of their laughter and their tears, their applause. It is about the hushed whispers of the audience during the interval. It is about grabbing a gin and tonic at the bar right before. An evening watching a play is made memorable by the whole experience and not just what happens at the very end. But if our focus is on the gin and tonic and not the play itself, then it defeats the purpose. We need to constantly self-scan to ask ourselves where our focus is and why.

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The choices you make

  • Lesson 4: Control is an illusion but do not lose control over things you can control because they give direction to Life.

I do not believe that these questions about the meaning of Life and Death are unnecessary questions. I actually took some time to evaluate my mental faculties. I could see that my thinking and feeling capabilities were at their peak. I was going about my day with dutiful vigour. Undoubtedly, I was exceptionally quiet but not noticeably so. If someone looked closely enough, they would be able to see my lost eyes. I was mentally sound. Besides, I was not feeling especially vulnerable to dark thoughts. I was just ruminating on a question which I considered important at the time.

I decided that there was a reason for the question to have arisen in my mind. Perhaps, this was a moment of learning for me. I was feeling helpless at the face of the impact this question was leaving me with. I was floundering because I did not have the right tools to steer myself out of this deadly mental doldrums. I could choose to ignore this thought and convince myself that ‘I think too much’ but I had made a promise to myself to be my best friend. I could not belittle the thoughts of my best friend. I could choose to stop asking ‘why’ and accept that this is how everyone else was living, albeit in the dark, clueless. But I chose to pursue this question further till I reached a satisfactory enough answer. I was feeling vulnerable because I realised that I have very little control over my life. I was, in a way, mourning the loss of control. But then, just when I was fighting with accepting this helplessness, I thought of the things that are in my control. I made a list of the things that are in my control and decided to work on them. My whole entire life may not be in my control, but I can do a handful of things that can give meaning to my life; give it direction. I decided to not lose control over these tiny little things because Life was too precious to leave to chance.

The D word

My son has recently started telling me that he will keep loving me even after I die. At first, the alarm bells went off clanging madly in my head. What was going on inside his 6-year-old mind? Perhaps that’s where I am wrong. I sometimes feel that he is an old soul. But I digress. The first time he told me I had smiled and assured him that I will love him forever. We had hugged and moved on. When he started repeating it almost daily, I sat him down and asked him what he was thinking. He said that he was sad to think that I would die someday. He said that he wanted me to know that his love for me would not diminish and he would always remember me. I realised that losing me or losing his loved ones was something that was bothering him. I told him that everyone who is born will die someday. I told him that right from the cells of our bodies to plants and animals, all living things that he can see, all will die one day. But, talking about death, and dying, and thinking about the time after someone is gone, will not make things any easier. The hurt and the pain will still be the same. So, the best thing to do is to talk and think about Life, instead. His smile had been one of gratitude. Since then, whenever he finds these thoughts bubbling under, he asks me if he can talk about the “D word” (his coinage). I hug him and tell him, “Any time, sweetheart.”

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