Remembering Death Can Inspire Us to Live

by | Aug 12, 2020

Paul Kalanithi was a rising surgeon with the world at his fingertips. He held degrees from Stanford, University of Cambridge, and Yale School of Medicine, and did his neurosurgery residence at one of the preeminent programs in the country at Stanford. He had a beautiful wife and a loving family, to boot.

In medical residency like Paul’s, there’s a saying: The days are long, but the years are short. Paul’s years were, indeed, short.

He heroically faced—and later succumbed to—a battle with cancer that was the basis for his posthumously-published bestseller, When Breath Becomes Air. If you haven’t read this book, go pick up a copy… along with a box of tissues… and a notebook.

It is a shame that it takes stories like Paul’s to remind us of our precious impermanence. Paul seemed to understand that this life thing was, in fact, really going to end —but it wasn’t until his own end that he truly appreciated this.

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

Many of us wander through life never truly understanding that our, too, shall end… a universal truth that many ironically don’t internalize until… well, the end. Just in time to look back on the heaping pile of shouldas, the laundry list of wouldas, and the stack o’ couldas.

In his book, The Laws of Human Nature, author Robert Greene offers a similar reflection on what’s possible when we confront our own mortality:

“Many of us spend our lives avoiding the thought of death. Instead the inevitability of death should be continually on our minds. Understanding the shortness of life fills us with a sense of purpose and urgency to realize our goals. Training ourselves to confront and accept this reality makes it easier to manage the inevitable setbacks, separations, and crises in life. It gives us a sense of proportion, of what really matters in this brief existence of ours. “

Our existence truly is brief. Our life is microscopically short. Like, really short. If the span of human history – which in itself is a mere speck on the timeline of the existence of life on earth – was the length of a football field, your lifespan would be about an inch long. Tim Urban does a great piece on the topic in his blog, Wait But Why.

And the span of your life – short as it is in the grand scheme of human history – is inherently unpredictable. You could go today. You could go tomorrow. In twenty minutes or twenty years.

Unfortunately for many, death can be unanticipated and untimely, depriving those unlucky ones of the chance to grapple with their own mortality. According to the CDC, 500 of our American brethren die each day from unexpected accidents.

That means there were 500 people who woke up yesterday morning not knowing that it was going to be their last day.

Crazy stats like this, and stories like Paul’s, should fill us with a sense of urgency to live our purpose every day, and pursue our goals with vigor. So push off your goals and dreams no more. Get started. You could leave life at any time.

What is possible – in your life and your leadership – if you let the idea that your life is impermanent determine what you do and say and think today?

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