5 Reasons Thinking About Death Makes Life Better

Death is one of those things nobody wants to think about.  It seems, almost, as if everyone just walks around pretending like it doesn’t exist.

What if I told you this wasn’t a normal behavior?  What if I told you this is purely cultural?

I imagine most of us would laugh at the thought.  Who wants to think about death, right?

But it’s true.

Think about it: it was only very recently that death has become something that we could have the luxury to put out of our minds.  For thousands of years, humans have had to deal with high infant mortality, death during childbirth, plagues, unadvanced medical care, and everything else.

Not only that, there are still plenty of people dealing with those things around the world.

We’ve built up a nice little luxury hotel for us in this country.

In other words, being aware of death is natural.  Refusing to think about it is unnatural and a luxury the vast majority of humanity has not been able to afford.

The irony of this is that, in many ways, our hiding from death has actually made our lives less meaningful.  It’s shielded us from the many benefits of being aware of and accepting that we will one day die.

So what are we missing?  What are the positives of death?  Can death even be seen as a positive thing?

Here are a list of how bringing death into our lives can actually enhance and make our lives richer and more meaningful.

1. We have an end goal

Have you ever succeeded at something?  Have you ever put your heart into a goal and achieved the beautiful payoff of having reached it?

It’s almost impossible to succeed at something if we don’t have a vision of what we’re aiming for.  Of where we’re going.  Of what the prize is at the end of the journey.

People imagine the kind of family they’d like to have.  The career of their dreams.  Even the retirement they’d like to enjoy.

And with that vision in hand, they work their lives, put their heart into achieving them.

Now imagine if we did that with our entire lives?  Imagine if we envisioned not the way we wanted to live, but the way we wanted to die?  What kind of person would we want to be when we’re on our deathbed with our family gathered around us?

Suddenly, career, retirement, money… all these things are sublimated to something higher: our highest potential as people.

Is it any wonder that there are so many people who have “mid-life crises”?  The awareness of death forces us to realize that there is a higher goal to reach for in life.

2.  Life isn’t as scary

Ironically, by becoming aware of the reality that we will all die no matter what, suddenly life itself isn’t as scary.  We are often so afraid to fight for what we believe in, to challenge authority, or to live a life that is different than those around us.

But when we realize that this is the one life we have, that this is all we have, that it could end at any moment, then suddenly every challenge in life is put in perspective.  Suddenly, fitting in with the herd simply isn’t so worth it if it means letting go of a life that means something to you.  Challenges are smaller.

While death itself, the unknown abyss, can be scary, that scariness ironically makes life itself much less scary in comparison.  Because there is only so much that life can throw at you before you end up just how you’ll end up no matter what.

Which is why it makes sense that in the past, and in countries with less of the “luxury hotel” atmosphere, people were and are willing to die for what they believe in.  Because when death is a conscious reality, the fears of this world can never compare to entering death with a life unlived.

3. We cherish every moment

Another fact that terrifies us about death is that it could happen at any moment.  This makes death far more real and now.  But that very awareness, although scarier, also has the potential to make us live far more meaningful lives.

One of the biggest complaints we hear about modern life is that people are constantly rushing.  They’re doing this, doing that.  Constnatly aiming for their physical desires, like career success, and forgetting the more “important” things.  Like family.  Like that novel they always meant to read.  Or just watching a sunset.

What if you realized this one very moment is a moment you’ll never have again?

Unfortunately, most of us are rushing around precisely because we’re scared to face that reality.

But what so many don’t realize is that when we do face this reality, every moment becomes valuable.  More valuable than any diamond, than any career.  Because it exists once and then disappears.

And when we cherish the moment, suddenly we are grateful for what we have instead of anxious about acquiring what we don’t have.  We’re healthy, we’re able to think and move and have enough money to have a computer: we have so much to be grateful for, and it is only by being aware that it is temporary that we can truly cherish it.

4. We have more humility

No matter what we believe, religiously (or otherwise) about what happens after we die, we can all agree on one thing: this physical body that I’m in, this reality that I’m living, won’t exist after I pass.  At least not in its current form.  We won’t be 20 forever.  And we won’t be inhabited the body as it exists forever.

There is simply no way to face that reality without becoming humble.  And not the sort of humility that makes you an empty shell, afraid to face reality.  The opposite: the humility that makes you have awe for the world around.  The humility that makes you realize that you don’t have all the answers and are one tiny part of something much, much bigger than yourself.

And whether we believe that the universe was around for billions of years or thousands of years, the enormity of it all makes our lives but a blip in a larger journey.

5. We become more spiritual

And this very humility is what then enables us to become more spiritual.  And I use the word “spiritual” purposefully: I’m not talking about religious debates or whether what I believe has more validity than what you believe.  What I mean is that we realize that there is more to life than materiality.

Death brings into sharp relief that all this physicality can’t compare to the non-physical conscious awareness (aka souls) that makes us who we are.

And the less our physical bodies matter, the more the timeless things in life matter.

It is precisely our avoidance of thinking about death that makes us so materialistic: when we refuse to think about death, we refuse to think about what happens after death.  We refuse to wonder if we are more than our bodies.  We refuse to imagine a world beyond this one.

Awareness of death does not allow us to escape these thoughts.

It’s funny, because often the most materialistic people (not people obsessed with money, but people believe that all that exists is physicality) have  a certain glee in pointing out how “primitive” religion is.  But that accusation comes from a place of privilege: of living in the luxury hotel that allows them to avoid thoughts of death for as long as possible.’

It’s also why so many religious people are so quick to not live out their ideals.  Or why they care only about the outward manifestations of their beliefs  than the inner spiritual life they’re meant to access.  Because they are afraid to realize that death is around the corner, and that one day the Maker they believe in will be face to face with them.  And so they worry more about their image, other people’s actions, and going through the motions, than digging deep.

It is only the person, religious or not, who accepts and embraces death, that can live a truly spiritual life.  It is only the person who focuses beyond physicality that can live a life devoted to timeless ideals instead of small, petty, achievements.





6 responses to “5 Reasons Thinking About Death Makes Life Better”

  1. Rivki Silver Avatar
    Rivki Silver

    I agree that society in general has taken death and either made it into something that is flooding our screens through movies, shows or games, or made it something removed by shipping it off to hospitals (not that I’m not a huge fan of modern medicine, but when someone is dying in a hospital is much different than dying at home).

    I also agree with most of your points, but I don’t know if I fully agree with #2 and 3. Since my SIL passed, I’m not more scared of life, per se, but awareness of the fragility of life is heavy, and the intensity of my desire to live a long life is a little scary for me, because I realize that I have pretty much no control over that. So I’m working on my bitachon there.

    And with cherishing every moment, that’s something I have been grappling with, because following my SIL’s death, I feel absolutely guilty for not savoring every moment, or for having a petty disagreement with my husband. I mean, how *could* I right now, after having death come and touch our family? But I guess this is, on a much smaller scale, a similar thing to the golden calf thing. Anyways, I’m just saying that even with being hypersensitive to death, it’s still possible to not savor every moment, and to not beat yourself up for it.

    Great post, as usual.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Hey Rivki,

      Love your thoughts, as usual. In terms of #2 and #3: I see your point, and I think you’re right in a sense. But, in my mind, the awareness of death gives us the CHOICE between fear and empowerment. I’m not saying it’s easy or something that we can achieve overnight. But I DO think that without the awareness we will never achieve those things in their fullest potential.

      And from what I’ve seen, part of that reason the fear and anxiety you describe sets in for so many of us is because we’ve spent so much of our lives avoiding the subject (Here’s a great example of this in action: http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/03/executives-must-face-their-own-mortality/). The more we think and meditate on it (and as orthodox Jews, on Hashem, etc), the more we can achieve the things I described in the list. It requires energy, but it’s the best kind of energy.

      1. Rivki Silver Avatar
        Rivki Silver

        Ah, yes, I see that. I think also I’m just so close to the experience right now and haven’t had a chance to let my feelings and thoughts simmer. We should revisit this in a year. Looking forward to reading that link there.

  2. s1234s Avatar

    The profound impact real gratitude has on your life is so powerful. Realising you are not in control, that is it all temporary, yet it all matters, and yet you are here, for now, and you have the opportunities every day to make the most of each day…just wow.
    I’ve been reading about the concept of Judgement and got slightly overwhelmed with fear knowing that I’ll never really be good enough, yet this has reminded me that the point is to recognise my humanity and keep trying.
    Thank you =)

  3. HS Avatar

    טוב לכת אל בית אבל מלכת אל בית משתה
    Translation: “It’s better to go to a house of mourning, then to go to a house of feasting.” – Kohelet (Ecclesiastes)

    While feasting arouses our desire for more physical enjoyments, contemplating death forces us to face our mortality, and causes us to use our moments in this world to the fullest.

  4. […] This is hardly surprising – historically in the UK and today in too many places across the world, death is prevalent in the form of high infant mortality and death in childbirth rates, death from hunger, poverty, war and disease. Death isn’t something that happens in hospitals and in old people’s homes, something furtive and hidden and talked about in hushed whispers, it is everywhere. For those of us fortunate enough to not face daily reminders of our mortality and the fear that the next day it might be us, we are sheltered from and able to distract ourselves from the reality of death. Ironically, rather than protecting ourselves, we may be laying ourselves open to increased distress. When death is something that happens to other people in private, we perhaps fool ourselves that it won’t happen to us and when occasionally the awareness permeates through that it will, we find that distressing. I came across an interesting blog post here about why thinking about death can be helpful: http://popchassid.com/5-ways-death-makes-life-better/ […]

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