Post No.: 0745
Death doesn’t round life off with a satisfying finish like the ending of a movie or novel – it curtails, rather than completes, life. That’s unless we take charge of the narrative of our own ending while we can to bring our story to a satisfying conclusion.
Thus a dying person’s story must take priority over the stories of those who’ll survive them – well their stories will be enriched too if the deceased is able to depart with as much closure as possible. Everyone will thus find more peace. The dying should take stock of and author their own last chapter to bring it to what they consider as a meaningful end. This should be done with the collaboration of loved ones but with the dying person at the helm.
The end of a story modifies the rest of the story too. A happy ending makes all of the hardships that led to it worth conquering. An acrimonious break-up can make the relationship before it seem like a lie. Those arguments with your son/daughter will seem alright if you had both forgiven each other in the end. This suggests that you should make peace with everyone before you die, if that’s important to you. And since we don’t know when exactly we’ll die, we might as well make peace with everyone now, and be kind and less self-centred now, where and while we can, as best as we can. Woof.
Regardless of our age – experiencing being close to death but surviving can lead us to reappraise our priorities and wishes for what time remains. Many will seek for a simpler life with a more present focus, like wanting to spend more time with their family now rather than a later that may never come. It can take a momentous event like nearly dying to get us to appreciate what we’ve got and to not take anything for granted. Many will (re)discover their spirituality.
Some top regrets of those receiving palliative care include – wishing one had lived a life that was truer to oneself rather than being pulled left and right according to what others or society expected one must do or have to be happy or successful; wishing one hadn’t worked so hard; having the courage to express one’s feelings more; staying in touch with old friends; and letting oneself be happier (perhaps by being more self-compassionate e.g. being way less harsh on ourselves if we believe our life isn’t as successful as our peers).
But this is a retroactive view – so you can forgive yourself for neglecting your present needs when you feel that you have a long future ahead of you. Most worthy goals require delayed gratification – a bit of enduring and sacrifice now to reach a self-actualising goal in the future. Benefits of hindsight don’t mean those decisions were necessarily wrong at the time they were made. Missed opportunities will appear crystal clear when looking back but we should be less harsh on ourselves, and others, regarding our, or their, regrets.
We can only do our best to anticipate our future memories. Yet when we do so, we might ask if something we’re bothered about right now would really bother us, say, in ten years time – like perfectionism, petty politics and empty pursuits? We might realise it’s worth tracking down some old fluffy buddies or looking after our health better rather than stressing over wanting a flashier car than what our neighbours have. We might realise that contentment is the real goal in life – not endlessly escalating desire.
We may assume that a full life is one that’s full to the brim with productivity. If so, we’ll end up becoming too busy ‘doing’ with no time for just ‘being’ – then life, ironically, passes us by. We may believe that life only happens if we dramatically fulfil our goals – so much that we’ll neglect ever being mindfully in the present. Then in the future when looking back on our lives, the things we’ve paid inadequate amounts of attention to might’ve been what we were precisely hoping to live for (e.g. savouring a good meal, rather than wolfing it down so that one can get back to one’s ‘to do list’ or trying to impress others).
So notice and appreciate more fully the beauty and awe that’s around you via all of your senses. We’re advised, nowadays, to be more mindfully present to better savour the here and now. This isn’t to suggest that we should live only and constantly for now. If we literally lived each moment or day as if it were our last, we’d likely do unhealthy things like binge eat or spend like there’s no future. Our experiencing self will feel happy (as long as our immediate pleasures can be sustained) but our remembering self would see a life unfulfilled (e.g. we failed to invest in our education or we became unhealthily obese). We’d be like drug addicts seeking each momentary high with the rest of the time regretting it. And despite our experiencing self having the true experience of an event at the time – our remembering self has the longer-lasting say in how we feel about an event. We should seize certain appropriate opportunities of the moment and connect with the present to savour the experiences that are happening right now before they pass us by – but we must also think of the future and our legacy too (e.g. the legacy of our present actions on future generations).
Awe can be experienced when we take a moment to notice and appreciate a flower, an insect, the design of a toy, the vista outside, how nature works, the kindness of strangers… But no one is saying that we should be exclusively present-minded. It’s just that, especially in our busy modern lives with our ceaseless goals, ambitions, ‘to do lists’ and pressures to constantly be productive – it doesn’t feel like we’re allowed a second of it. We need a better balance, and for most of us that means adding more present-focused moments in our daily lives to centre ourselves, to enjoy the now and worry less about the done past and hypothesised future. We should live in the present with some plan for the future (that we hope will turn out as envisaged if things works out – or God willing if you like – but without emotionally investing heavily in whatever outcome materialises because the future is not completely in our control).
Mindfulness meditation is one way to induce mindfulness. But it doesn’t require a deliberate moment of meditation – it just needs paying conscious attention on the here and now, whenever and wherever you are. Really, mindfulness can be practised during any small spare moment you have; while standing up, seated or lying down. With regular application, you’ll find it easier to reach a state of mindfulness during difficult situations, such as when trying to calm yourself down during a heated moment. It’s like switching from autopilot to manual – suddenly the world blooms in richness before us.
Being in the present benefits those who are anxious most of all. Be more mindful, with focused but non-judgemental attention on the present, because here and now rarely contains any problems – as in right now. For example, you’re likely not on fire, freefalling from a height or getting shot at right now! Right now, we can gain better perspective by taking a step back from our feelings and our narratives about our past regrets or future dreads, and recognise they are not us. Mindfulness practice returns our awareness to a standpoint between our thoughts rather than where it usually resides – with us caught up in them. Notice the details of your present surroundings. When you’re doing so, you won’t be thinking about growing old, dying, laments of the past or longings of the future (but if you do then that’s okay – just be aware of this then gently bring your attention back to your current surroundings).
So your present reality is probably okay compared to your memorised, imagined or anticipated consternations. The terminally ill mainly wish they’d focused more attention on the present in their past (which unfortunately means they’re not even being focused on the present right now!) The elderly are more likely to be more present-minded, and to spend more time with their friends and family once more, and are thus happier.
Speaking of which. Ageism against the elderly, or fretting about growing old, is bizarre because we all want to grow old – for the alternative is dying young(!) (Birthdays are good for your health – it’s a scientific fact that the more birthdays you have, the longer you live!) You’re more likely to get cancer as you live longer (perhaps as part of general rising global life expectancies due to greater access to medical advances, even if we exclude the decreasing trend of infant mortality) – but wouldn’t the worse tragedy be living a short life? We accrue so much wisdom as we grow older too – stuff we wouldn’t want to un-know. Unhelpful stereotypes regarding the elderly are often inaccurate anyway, for not all are decrepit and some have wit as rapier sharp as ever!
Even though when we’re dead we won’t (or literally can’t) care about it – while we’re still alive, we might care about what legacy we’ll leave in the minds of the surviving. Well our legacy doesn’t have to be specific memories of us but the positive effects we leave on others or the community (e.g. the kind deeds we did or the warmth of spirit we shared that will ripple and pass on from person to person). You can therefore leave a good legacy by simply being generous and less self-centred, by passing on teachings or maybe a useful idea or invention, or by helping to progress a social change – even if the surviving won’t remember you by name. You can have a lasting effect on others and the world. Your legacy could be your beaming joy that lives on in the personality of your children, who might in turn pass it onto theirs?
…Post No.: 0729 pondered if immortality was actually desirable? As another thought experiment for today – would it feel better if everyone died at the same time, such as in a total and instant mass extinction event? No one would then need to mourn the dead!
It’d however only make sense to care about your legacy or do anything you do in your life for an extrinsic purpose if you feel that the human race is going to continue on for a fur-seeable while without you after your own passing. If you knew doomsday or the apocalypse was going to come shortly after your death, or alternatively the human race was rendered completely infertile today – it’d feel pointless to care about preserving traditions, accumulating knowledge, fighting territorial wars, seeking cures for diseases, or doing anything extrinsic with zeal. Our legacy would matter not one jot.
This thus reveals that the continuing lives of others – not just those we personally know and love but also the yet-born and humanity (or dogity) as a whole – matters vitally more to us than our own single life. We need others to live on to give our activities and values meaning and purpose. They are whom our legacy affects.
So although a drawback of belonging to a social species is that much of life’s anguishes are brought on by us being consumed with what others think of us (whether they actually care about what we do or how we’ll be remembered or not) – a benefit is that without others, particularly future generations, we wouldn’t care about a lot of things at all.
So we can’t do much to prevent our own demise, but we can contribute to preserving the future of our and other species (e.g. via our ecosystem conservation efforts) for our own interests. For our own legacy.