Have you had a life-or-death experience? Has someone close to you died? Do you shy away from the topic of death because it’s uncomfortable?
Those were questions I never contemplated for most of my life. Nowadays I embrace the conversation because I’ve realized that contemplating death can inform our lives powerfully.
I was given an opportunity to reflect on this earlier this week after having the interesting and terrifying experience of my life flashing before my eyes.
I won’t go into the particulars of the incident, but what is important is that I saw how, in a few short seconds, my life could have been gone and, after a breath or two, the realization that I was still here.
This sat a little heavier with me than it might most people because I’ve experienced being on the other side of loss, where I was the surviving half of a pair. I’ve written about this before, as it was the slow-but-sure catalyst for a complete collapsing and rebuilding of my inner and outer life, perspective, and purpose.
For quite a while after I had reentered society, I noticed that I was hyper-sensitive to the small things in life. Giving someone a hug, saying goodbye or hello, a bird flying by, listening to a heartbeat – these all struck me as so precious and fleeting. I marveled at how no one else seemed to recognize the value in these small moments, while also realizing I could not live with this kind of intensity. I could not keep treating each moment as if it could be the last.
Or could I?
If I did value each moment as if it could be the last, it ramped up my experiences to the level of sacred. It slowed down the pace of life to one slow-motion moment. Life simultaneously filled and broke my heart every day from the sheer happiness at being alive and the knowledge that this too will end someday.
Over time this intense attitude faded some. I got comfortable with my new normal life. I was able to enjoy it without valuing it as priceless. I told myself it just wasn’t sustainable to live with that kind of intensity.
I now realize it wasn’t sustainable because I wasn’t yet strong enough to sustain it.
It takes a lot of strength to take on life fully, with all its rawness, beauty, fullness, and heartbreak. It takes a strength and commitment that no one can give us because it has to come from the inside out. Perhaps this is why we tend to get inspired or feel fearless momentarily, and then slowly fade back into a more comfortable zone of living where people are nice, loving, and live their lives with an ease and trust that everything’s going to be alright. We’re all going to live to a hundred, tragedy doesn’t touch us, and let’s put off that dream until tomorrow.
I found certain kinds of yoga lit the flame deep inside me to live my fullest life, to face my fears, and to live each day as if I was going to die tomorrow.
That’s a question that works wonders for me, and I often call on it when I feel especially afraid or especially self-conscious about putting myself out there.
I ask myself, If you died tomorrow, would you wish you had done this?
The answer is usually yes. Because in the light of death, vulnerability doesn’t seem so scary. In the light of death, vulnerability is all there is. It allows us to turn ourselves inside out, not so much for all the world to see, but more for us to see. For us to feel. For us to let out all our inner, protected, sensitive layers and let them feel the freedom of being unprotected and fully alive.
In the light of life, vulnerability is dangerous. It exposes us and that means people might be able to poke a hole in our armor with their harsh words, opinions, or indifference.
It also means people could get inside us. God forbid someone come up close and touch our beating heart, see our deepest fears, or learn that we are only human like them.
I’ve often thought when our lives flash before our eyes it would happen quickly, in our last moments of life, but my experience of my life flashing before my eyes was quite slow. It happened over the course of hours, as I witnessed every step I took in my daily life that I might not have been able to take. Everything I might normally take for granted I saw as alive, priceless, fascinating, and almost unreal.
Even so, I saw old patterns acting themselves out. Fear, defenses, walls. It was as if, since I was still alive, I still felt I had to protect my “self” somehow.
This is the glory of being human.
I find it unfortunate that it often takes loss or trauma to remind us of the intrinsic value of life, of a breath, of a heartbeat. The urgency and brevity of life often does not fully register in us until we are faced with our own mortality or that of someone close to us.
It’s not just every new day that is a gift, an opportunity, and an invitation to live fully.
It is every moment.
Every moment we can choose to embrace or pass by. When we accept the invitation – what I consider our inherent obligation – to fully embrace and embody our lives, when our life flashes before our eyes, we will not have to wonder, What would I have done if I knew I was going to die today?
We will have already done it. We will have already done it, spoke it, wrote it, shared it, lived it.
I invite us all to contemplate deeply and answer daily Mary Oliver’s question:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”