As far as we know, we human beings are the only living creatures that are aware of their own mortality. Due to our highly developed cerebral cortex, which permits conscious and complex thought, we are uniquely able to realize that, one day, our life will end. One day, we will die.
Realizing that life is fleeting, that we are mortal, and thinking about it can be scary though. Because despite all the challenges, problems and frustrations we encounter in life, the fact of the matter is that we want to live. We have a strong self-conservation instinct and we crave to be alive. This can make the realization that sooner or later we will inevitably die quite disconcerting.
However, that’s not the only reason why knowing and thinking about our mortality can be scary. It can also be scary because realizing one day you will die is an open invitation to look back at the way you’ve lived your life so far and to asses it. And unfortunately, many people don’t like what comes out of that assessment.
The 2 Common Ways People Deal with Their Mortality
Given all of this, I find it interesting to observe how people deal with the notion of their own mortality. I noticed that there are 2 major ways they do this.
1. Denying mortality. The gradual degradation of our physical bodies and their eventual demise is an observable fact, and thus, hard to deny. But we can come to believe in the existence of something beyond our physical bodies, something we may call spirit or soul, which is immortal. So although our bodies die, our spirit will go on eternally.
This is the idea proposed by many religions, in one form or another: reincarnation, life after death, going to heaven, etc.
I understand why such an idea can be extremely appealing, given the sense of solace it provides. Nevertheless, whatever form it takes, I find this idea utterly unsubstantiated. I’ve listened to the arguments, I’ve done the research, and I see no compelling evidence for the existence of an immortal soul. I simply don’t buy it.
As far as I’m concerned, lots of people believe in this notion because they have a strong emotional need to believe in it, or because of strong social conditioning in favor of this notion. But the actual arguments to back it up are feeble.
Moreover, at a social level, I see the idea of life after death as a way to comfort people, but also as a long-standing mechanism for social control, which often encourages people to waste their lives.
Over the centuries, masses of people have conformed to absurd norms and tolerated all sorts of crap because they bought into the theory that it will give them access to a better, eternal life after this one.
This is not to say that I think there is zero chance for some form of immortal soul or life after death to exist. I just think it’s improbable given the available evidence, and I think it’s smart to act on the assumption there is no such thing. Better safe than sorry.
2. Avoiding thinking about mortality. Bring up the topic of death at the dinner table one day, and you’ll notice it’s far from being a popular topic. Some people will only discuss it jokingly, others will quickly try to maneuver the conversation to another topic: “This is the best salad I ever had! You have to give me the recipe!”
In general, people in our society are not comfortable thinking about death. Because they have not come to terms with it. So they try to not think about it, not talk about it, and not be reminded of it.
It’s one of the reasons why many folks dread funerals. Have you ever seen someone crying uncontrollably at the funeral of someone they barely know? They’re not crying for the deceased person. They’re crying because that dead person in the coffin is as a ‘vivid’ reminder of their own mortality.
It’s also one of the reasons why we often engage excessively in activities like eating, drinking, partying, watching movies and having sex. By providing instant gratification, these activities can act as distractions. They help us forget about our own mortality, so we can keep living the way we’re living no matter how bad it is, without feeling the uncomfortable need to change.
The problem is that one can only dodge scary thoughts so much. Eventually they come back, often with a vengeance. Eventually the thought that you’re only mortal creeps back into your head. And when it does, you’ll find that even more time has passed, and probably a lot of it has gone to waste. This is gonna generate even more fear, anger and regret than before, and it’s gonna be even harder to make that pesky thought go away.
Sooner or later, the thought that one day you’ll die comes back like an avalanche and it swallows you whole. Then you have to deal with it.
A Better Way to Deal with Your Mortality
Given the fact that I see denying your mortality as basically lying to yourself, and never thinking about it as running away from the truth, I obviously don’t consider them good strategies to deal with the fact one day you will die. I think in the long-term they do a lot more harm than good.
I believe that ultimately, your best option is to accept your mortality, and to use your awareness of it as a tool for making amazing things happen in your life.
This is easier said than done. In truth, accepting your mortality and making your perception of it work for you constitute an entire psychological process.
I’ve learned how to perform this process in time, and I’ve used it successfully in my own life. I’ve also taught this process to many of my coaching clients, and helped them leverage the notion of their mortality to make the most out of their lives. Now, I’d like to show you how this process works.
Accepting your mortality and leveraging your awareness of it involves 5 essential steps. Here they are:
1. Reflect on the notion that one day you will die. It all starts with you bringing into your awareness the thought that one day, sooner or later, your life will come to an end. One day, you will die. And when you do, for you, everything will be over.
Let this thought enter your mind and fill your awareness. Try to stay with it for a few seconds. And as you do so, know that this thought is true. Stay with it and recognize its trueness.
When you first do this exercise, all sorts of negative feelings may arise: fear, frustration, helplessness. Let them be and stay with your thought. In time, as you repeat this exercise, the negative feelings will get dimmer and dimmer, until eventually you’ll be able to contemplate your mortality with calm acceptance. You will come to accept death, while still maintaining the sturdy desire to live.
2. Come to terms with wasted time. As you reflect on the idea that one day you will die and you become highly aware that time is your only non-renewable resource, as mentioned earlier, it will likely get you evaluating the way you’ve lived your life so far.
This is when you may realize you’ve used a lot of time unwisely: those months spent working in a shitty job instead of looking for a new one; the thousands of hours spent in apathy watching TV, all that time spent daydreaming instead of taking action, etc.
This is when regret over wasted time typically sets it. And so it’s very tempting at this point to wanna stop thinking about all of this mortality stuff and distract your mind.
But if you stop thinking about it, you’re only ignoring the problem, which means you’ll continue wasting time, thus digging yourself into an even deeper whole. So this is not the solution. The solution is to come to terms with the fact you’ve wasted time, while simultaneously learning from this mistake.
How do you achieve this? By consciously reminding yourself that as bad as wasting time is, what’s done is done and you there is nothing you can do about it. All you can do is make sure you don’t repeat the same mistake. This pragmatic thought is a potent method to diffuse feelings of regret.
Think of this for 10-20-30 seconds, and you’ll notice that it will help you feel more accepting of the fact you’ve wasted time in the past, while simultaneously motivating you to not let this continue in the future. Now past mistakes are working for you instead of against you.
3. Connect with your core values. Once you’ve dealt with the feelings of regret and you feel driven to make the most of your time from now on, it’s time to capitalize on this positive shift in your emotions. In order to do this, you need to mentally get in touch with the things that are most important to you in life and bring them to the forefront of your awareness; to connect with your core values.
If you don’t know what’s most important to you in life, I strongly encourage you to work on clarifying this over the next few weeks, maybe even months. I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to have a keen awareness of your core values.
In my case for instance, I know pretty well that my core values include interacting with like-minded people, having a richness of experiences, helping others improve themselves, and being healthy. So when I think about what matters to me in life, these are the first things that come to mind.
4. Choose your action course based on your core values. Once you’ve connected with your core values, it’s time to think about how you can use your time moving forward and identify ways to use your time that are aligned with your core values. Focus on the use of your time over the next minutes and hours in particular, but plan for the long-term as well when it’s relevant.
During this step it will become very clear to you what you should be doing next in your day to make the most of it. You get a sense of direction and you feel stimulated to pursue that direction.
It’s a great state to be in: a state of enhanced consciousness, in which you are mindful of your options and their individual value, and you choose consciously. Many people almost never enter this state. They just let their impulses drive them blindly and they go through life on auto-pilot.
5. Take relevant action. Last but not least, once you’ve indentified the proper action course for you, implement it. Take actions that are aligned with your values.
Frequently, this step involves course corrections. Through the previous steps you will have realized that what you were doing before this whole exercise was a poor use of your time, and now you’ll wanna correct your behavior and do something else, which is a better use of your time.
For example, let’s say one day you’re doing this exercise while watching your third consecutive movie on TV, and you identify health as one of your core values. It’s likely that by doing this exercise you’ll abruptly become very aware that watching that movie is a waste of your time, while something like going to the gym is a much better use of it. Use that sudden, heightened awareness and the added motivation that comes with it to turn off the TV, get off the couch, and leave for the gym. Take action.
Okay. This is the 5-step process. Essentially, it’s a process that creates awareness, it helps you find the right action course, and it provides inspiration and courage to pursue it. It only takes a couple of minutes to go through this entire exercise, and you can do it just about anywhere, anytime.
This exercise is not a panacea though. It won’t eradicate all procrastination, hesitation or fear from your life and get you to never waste another minute. So I recommend combining doing this exercise with using other strategies to motivate yourself, as well as using proven methods to improve your confidence and overcome your fears. You might wanna check out my confidence boosting programs, on that note.
Nevertheless, judged on its own merits, this short 5-step process is a very powerful tool for making behavioral changes and using your time wisely. I recommend you employ it several times every single day. Make using it a daily habit. Over weeks and months, it’s incredible how big of a difference it can make in your life.
Die Well Every Day
In closing, here’s a way to look at life and death that I find very inspiring and I often use.
Dying is a single event. You live and you live and you live, and then one day, you die. Puff! But it’s interesting to look at dying as a process instead of a single event. So instead of thinking that you live and you live and you live, and then, one day you die, you think that each day you die just a little bit, until one day there is no more life left in you, and you have died entirely.
Looking at dying this way, you could say that your goal each day is to die well. Which means to live in accordance with your most important values. If you’ve lived a day to the max, and you’ve used your time well, and you’ve given it all you got, you can truly say you died well that day.
It gives me goose bumps just thinking about this, but that’s a sign this perspective is a very powerful one to have. Every time I consider that I have a new day in front of me and I wanna spend it dying well, the clarity, focus, courage and determination this provides is amazing. And these are the internal resources that help you make the most of each day, and squeeze out of it every drop of value you can.
So, die well, every single day!