“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” So quipped Benjamin Franklin in 1789, the year the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Since then, much has been said about taxes, but we do our very best to avoid the subject of death. In his 1973 Pulitzer prize-winning book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker gives the most complete and compelling explanation for this phenomenon. We experience an intolerable existential terror when we confront the reality of our own mortality. Thus, the denial of death becomes the organizing principle of life and the primary motivator of human behavior. In essence, we spend our limited time on earth anesthetizing ourselves through busyness and distraction. We are unable to simply be present since presence requires that we acknowledge our mortality.
It has been one week since the tragic death of the son of a friend and neighbor of ours. Only twenty years old, he was snatched away from us by the very thing we can’t stand to acknowledge. That this incomprehensible tragedy is so shocking speaks to the existence of our desperate attempts to ignore death’s certainty. I chose to write about death this week because I believe there is a relationship to death other than denial that is available to us. I write about death to remind myself once again to live life. And I write about death to honor the memory of this young man and his beautiful family and community of friends that grieve his passing.
Not all traditions deny death. Many embrace and honor it. The one that I am most familiar with is Stoicism. One particular Stoic practice is called memento mori, which in English means, “Remember, you must die.” The Stoics repeated this phrase to remind them of their mortality and the importance of presence. The Stoics so embraced this practice that they would envision the death of their children each night, as a way of ensuring that they did not take for granted the simple yet profound gift of the well-being of their loved ones. In his commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs spoke of a similar approach to life and death:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything— all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.
I believe our young ones are, at times, taken from us too early to remind us to wake up. That this has to happen for us to become more present is tragic, so heavy is the weight of our existential dread. For some time now, I have practiced the ancient wisdom of memento mori. I carry in my pocket a coin inscribed with those two words. I won’t let my wife or children leave the house without kissing them or letting them know I love them. I hold my father extra close and kiss him every weekend when I visit him. I wake up every morning and the first thing I say, without exception, is, “Thank God I’m alive; this is going to be an amazing day.” In each of these acts, I visualize my death and the death of my loved ones. It turns out that doing so isn’t morbid or depressing. It is enlivening and sweet. It keeps me awake to the fact that, at any moment, life can change irreversibly. It invites me to be present. To soak in the here and now. To put my phone down. To give my children an extra hug. To be able to say at the end of my life that I hugged and kissed and loved fully. That is the gift of death, which I choose to gladly receive and no longer deny.