“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” -Viktor E. Frankl
Hurricane Sandy. The Japanese and South Asian Tsunamis. Tornadoes in the Midwest. Conflict in the Middle East. Massive floods, earthquakes, and countless other tragedies that fail to make headlines.
Wherever we look it seems as though disasters, both natural and man-made, are occurring more frequently and closer to home than ever before. Slowly but surely everyone on the planet is gradually coming closer to the realization that the next disaster could very well be in their own backyard; directly impacting loved ones, friends, property, livelihood, and future achievements.
From the poorest of nations to world super powers such as Japan and the United States, disaster, death, loss, and complete destruction ignore all boundaries of culture, economy, and location. Yet despite these often stark local differences, the people involved, as well as the world community as a whole, are found asking themselves the very same questions. Questions that we often fail to ask in the comfort of day-to-day life. Questions that speak to the very essence of what it is to be human. What it is to prosper, live happily, and be ever prepared for losses of all kinds—most of which are a mere fortune’s roll away.
The reality of death and pain of losing everything have become more than just nightmares, they become our reality. And just like the torrential forces of nature that leave so many years of infrastructure and growth undone, the strain on the human mind also leaves one in a place of utter disarray and confusion.
So how does live with to the real threat of death at a moments notice? What is death and how do you live your life knowing that this could very well be your last day? How do you recover or prepare to lose everything you’ve worked so hard for, sometimes even an entire life’s worth of achievement and struggle in just a few short moments?
What is it to live?
How can we use the time we have to reinforce the meaning in our life? To truly live in the moment instead of taking it for granted, assuming we’ll have another day? To not lose sight of what really matters? To make sure that our lives—whether rich or poor, short or long—have the quality and intensity worthy of another day?
Just like a city after a disaster or the prairie after a fire, we all have the chance, not only to regain what we have lost, but to grow stronger as individuals, as a community, and as a world.
While I certainly don’t claim to possess all the insight needed to solve such monumental questions, with the help of some of history’s greatest thinkers, I believe I can take you at least a few steps closer to understanding and enjoying the often turbulent reality we live in.
The Fear of Death
The inevitability of our death is a constant preoccupation of the human, or should I say conscious, mind. After all, we are the only creatures on the planet who are not only aware, but certain of, our eventual demise. It is our inescapable fate, yet despite it’s permanent place in our reality, most of us fail to approach a true understanding of what it really means to die.
Instead, we live our lives (either actively or passively) in fear of an end we cannot escape. We fear old age, the slowing of our lives, the changes that the years bring, and the unknown difficulties that await. We push back against this fear by constantly battling the mental and physical signs of death on a daily, sometimes even hourly, basis.
We cover our aging physique with the latest “longevity” products, undergo treatments, and sometimes even dangerous surgeries, simply to look and feel younger. We take every measure possible to prolong our lives and secure a future for the slowdown we know is just over the horizon. We live vicariously through the younger generations, knowing they often take for granted the years in which they live. We attach ourselves to religious dogmas —to ideas that promise eternal life and the comfort of the illusion that you’ll never really have to die. We embrace the notion that we will live on, that there is no such thing as an end, that the consciousness we hold now will survive forever.
Despite differing beliefs about what will happen after we die, it is the fear of complete loss and the vast unknown that ultimately terrifies us the most. Perhaps this is because our minds can’t quite grasp the notion of “non-reality”, or perhaps because no one really knows what happens when the synapses in our brain cease to communicate. This fear of drastic change; the removal of all we know to be “real” and “true” is what fuels this primal emotion.
We know deep down, that whether we go to heaven, are reincarnated, or simply dissolve into nothingness, we must partake in a massive transformation away from all that is real. And that is what scares us the most…
Just like many Buddhist mantras, practitioners of stoicism view death as just the natural outcome of having a body. Stoicism recognized thousands of years ago that much of our reality is rooted in our reactions to things, and not the actual event itself. By removing our own layer of emotional baggage, that is, by viewing the what happens in the world as not necessarily good or bad, but simply as something that happened (or will happen), we can slowly start to see how so many of our problems and worries are nothing more than the emotions we attach to these events.
The Stoic Epictetus puts this very idea into context for us in a passage of Discourses of Epictetus, found in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (a must read for anyone with further interests in these subjects). In it, Epictetus provides examples of the inner discourse, or the soul’s dialogue with itself, on the subject of representations of events.
“His ship sank.”
“His ship sank.”
“He was sent to prison.” But if you add the proposition “a terrible thing happened to him,” then that is coming from you.
It is only when we seek to interpret events as explicitly good or bad that we end up suffering or spinning our “emotional wheels” in angst. That’s not to say we should be indifferent or careless to what happens to us, but simply that when we are faced with extreme circumstances, we must view those events for what they really are, instead of listening to the stories that our emotions are eager to tell. This applies not just to death, but pretty much anything that happens to us in our lives.
Please note the distinction made here. I’m not saying we should completely remove ourselves from all emotion and just not give a shit about anything. What I’m saying is that the more we can remove ourselves from the emotions of the events that have happened, the things that are beyond our control, and the inevitable events of our future, the better we can focus on the moment, the better we can see what is truly important now, the better we can plan the steps we need to take, and the better we can execute these plans towards happiness in our own lives and of those around us.
In essence, do not dread death, pain, or things beyond your control – but rather dread the fear of these things. Our abilities do not extend to the control of the external happenings, but rather how we choose to respond to these circumstances of life.
While will never be able to completely divorce ourselves from these emotions—nor would we want to—but by developing the ability to see events from an outside perspective—from a neutral standpoint, from a place of complete objectivity —we gain the power to reframe the context in which we view these events and reduce the destructive power they have over us.
Author Robert Greene builds on this idea of complete objectivity in a recent interview,
Nothing is good or bad, it simply is. It simply is an event that happens to you. And so when you alter your way of thinking like that, and simply see events as completely neutral, it becomes really powerful because you’re not afraid of bad things happening to you. And bad thing are actually inevitable…
To put it in more familiar terms,
“Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.”
Death is an event in which every one of us must partake. When we make it more that simply another part of the human experience, we end creating a monster from the resulting fear and emotion that inevitably arise. With the ability to view things as events instead of good or bad, we can not only remove much of the emotional toil and suffering, but turn these seemingly terrible events around into an opportunity to grow, learn, rebuild, or live better and grow stronger.
It’s an innate part of our nature to be afraid death and the unknown. However once we realize that it is the subjective inner dialogue which instigates this fear, we are free to remove ourselves from this discourse and begin to view our world objectively—free from the reactions caused by destructive emotions live fear, anger, and hopelessness.
As the Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca (Also a must read) eloquently puts,
“I ask you, wouldn’t you say that anyone who took the view that a lamp was worse off when it was put out than when it was lit an utter idiot? We, too, are lit and put out. We suffer in the intervening period, but at either end of it there is deep tranquillity….We are wrong in holding that death follows after, when in fact it precedes as well as succeeds. Death is all that was before us. What does it matter, after all, whether you cease to be or never begin, when the result of either is that you do not exist?”
When we treat death as a tragedy, we look at it as an ending of good times. Think instead of death as part of nature, part of the physical change and transformation - beyond our power to alter and thus must be accepted. Look at it directly instead of averting our eyes and minds and turning away in fear and denial. Realize that what one does with the body while one is alive is much more important than the fact of the body’s demise.
When death comes, die. Until then, live – in reality, not fantasy.
The final result of an objective view of events and our world is the ability to clearly see and spend time on what really matter. To live life to the fullest extent possible and enhance our ability to achieve true wealth and stability in our lives.
I want to end this first section (a follow-up is coming–follow me to know when) with a quote from Lucius Seneca about death and the life worth living.
“The man, though, whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live and in spite of that is not reluctant to die. For where’s the virtue in going out when you’re really being thrown out? And yet there is this virtue about my case: I’m in the process of being thrown out, certainly, but the manner of it is as if I were going out. And the reason why it never happens to a wise man is that being thrown out signifies expulsion from a place one is reluctant to depart from, and there is nothing a wise man does reluctantly. He escapes necessity because he wills what necessity is going to force on him.”
We can either let the emotions of the past and the fear of an unavoidable death control our lives, or we can learn to see death and loss as simply an unavoidable and inevitable part of life, freeing us to live in joy, grow, and truly appreciate every fleeting moment we do have on this earth.
The choice is up to you…
Part Two –When All Is Lost: Turning Misfortune Into Opportunity.
Part Three –Free to Live: How to Appreciate Every Moment.