Facing Mortality and Being Happy
Death can remind us to live well today.
Posted Aug 10, 2015
On a vacation in Peru, Lima’s Monastery of San Francisco, begun in 1675, and the catacombs underneath it fascinated me. Approximately seventy thousand people are buried there, none with any identification. All these thousands of people are just thousands and thousands of bones and skulls, nameless in death.
The anonymity of those buried in the catacombs relates to our thoughts about death or, rather, what we refuse to face about death. Most of us pretend we’ll live forever and be remembered just as long. Death won’t come for us, we think. But the truth is it will for all of us. And in time, we too will be forgotten, just like those buried under the Monastery of San Francisco. We will be put to the ground, perhaps cremated, and eventually no one will be around who remembers us. Yet that absolute truth is something we have a hard time accepting. This is especially true when we’re very young. The youth have a sense of invincibility; they feel nothing can harm them and they will live forever. Then, as we grow older and someone close to us dies, we realize we are vulnerable. But still, the thought of death remains distant, not something we want to think of about too deeply.
In my talking to people about the end of their life, I’ve learned most face death with the sense that it shouldn’t happen to them. My visit to the catacombs in Lima reminded me that death is a fact for all of us. Even in as quickly as two or three generations, we will be forgotten. How many of us can go back more than four generations and say much about our ancestors? Unless they were famous, we are not going to remember them or know about their personalities. Even those who are well-known will someday enter oblivion.
The truth is that we are going to die, and facing that, really believing in that, is helpful in regards to happiness. It forces us to look at how we are living and put that in the perspective of our limited time on Earth. Are we living our lives well? Even if no one remembers us, even if we die tomorrow, how are we living now?
We tend to say, “If I live my life well and am remembered by other people, then I’ve done well because I made a difference.” But out of all those seventy thousand humans whose bones were in the Monastery of San Francisco, not one of them has a story to tell. Today, there is nothing to remember any of them by. They may have been magnificent mothers, they may have been superb poets, they may have been world-class leaders, but not one is remembered anymore. So instead of thinking we should do things by which we will be remembered, we should choose another way to live our lives.
Let’s say we’re not going to be remembered by anybody. What do we have then? What we have is the ability and choice to live well now. If we live well now, if we accumulate a beautiful life that we enjoy, we will find happiness in the here and now, even if nothing is remembered about us. I think this is a beautiful way to live.
Of course, we want to prepare for the future. We may live for eternity; I still believe that, but we don’t know. All we know is that we can live here and now well. That’s something we can do. Focusing on the future—either believing we will live forever or in the next life—keeps us from living well today. I think that’s why so many people struggle, because they forget that this is all we have. This life, this moment is the only guarantee we have because tomorrow the doctor may tell us we only have a few weeks to live. Tomorrow, a drunk driver can kill us. Tomorrow, our world could end. But TODAY at this moment, we are alive, and if we really believe that we are going to die, how much better can we live today? We can live so much better. When we really hold onto the truth that life isn’t going to go on forever, we can believe it and savor every moment. I think this is the gift of death. Death can remind us to live well today. When we forget, we struggle. When we forget, we hang onto fears and anxieties, hopes and dreams that preclude us from living here and now well. The one thing that is guaranteed is that this life on planet Earth will end, and it isn’t doing us any good not to think about it.
A better approach is to wake up each morning, saying this may be the last day we have to live, and then, throughout the day, appreciate every moment of each experience. We can say that the meal we’re eating could be the last one we ever eat, our conversation with our children could be the last time we see them, the raindrops hitting the windows could be the last rain we ever hear. When we do that—and we can do that on a consistent basis—we fill our lives with joys and happiness that surpass any form of understanding because we will be living fully, knowing that our life may pass.
I have met many people diagnosed with incurable diseases, and they have told me they started to live once they knew they were going to die. We, too, can live well if we accept that we are going to die. We don’t know when death may come. It could be today. Of course, we still prepare for the future, but we also should be living each day as if it’s our last because it could be. We all know people who suddenly died without warning. If we start living as if each day is our last, we will find that it’s very difficult to be anxious about the future or feel depressed if this is all we have and we love it. Instead of clutching to fame, fortune, or things we don’t have, we celebrate what we do have. Maybe we’re not with the love of our life, but we can celebrate what we do have, such as beauty all around us, good friends close by, or nature. Whether we’re financially successful or not, it doesn’t matter because we realize if we’re not living well today, then we’re not living.
We can have the whole world and be miserable. And we can have nothing yet be extremely happy if we live well right now. Living fully in this moment is one of the key factors of happiness. If we can remember this may be the last day we have to live, we will live better and happily throughout the day, whether or not it is our last. We can all live beautiful lives if we live as if today were our last.