Why Thinking About Death Every Day Helps Me Live a Better Life
Just hear me out
“WHY DO YOU DO SO MUCH?”
The guy who asked me that was a middle-aged journalist and student of mine who’d just completed my six-week course on earning more from your writing.
I thought about his question. It kind of rattled me. Why do I do so much? I’m an author, editor, podcaster, blogger, teacher. Just to list all that sounds ridiculous, like I’m in some productivity competition but against whom I couldn’t tell you because I don’t fully consider it because I also write TV and feature scripts in my free time.
(Sigh. It’s true.)
I stuttered a half response to the guy, as if to defend myself, then stopped. My actions don’t need defending. I love my life and am curious about the world and what I might do in it, but even that response didn’t get to why I take on all these projects.
“Because,” I said — then another pause.
“Because I know I’m gonna die.”
I'M NOT GONNA DIE TOMORROW. At least I don’t think I will. I don’t have a malignant and inoperable type of cancer and among my many gigs you won’t find one that puts my self or safety at risk. But I do think about death every day. I think about when I might go, and just acknowledging that I might die next Tuesday or 40 years from next Tuesday gives my days focus. I think about how I want to spend them. I think about the sort of legacy I might leave.
I didn’t always think like this. Like you, I knew I was going to die but didn’t dwell on it. Then a couple years ago I profiled an immigrant in San Francisco named Tareq Azim. Tareq gave up on his dream to play in the NFL so he could fight off the Taliban warlords who’d staked as their own territory the large swaths of the Azim family’s ancestral acreage in Afghanistan. This was just after 9/11, when the American military was in constant battle with the tribal leaders of Afghanistan. Tareq didn’t join the U.S. forces. He went to Afghanistan as a civilian, but a guy with a mindset of, “If the Taliban wants to shoot, I’ll shoot back.” He got himself in a lot of harrowing, if inspiring, predicaments and more than once thought his actions might cause his death.
They never did though. He found a way to live alongside his fear, to get comfortable with death, and it was this preparation for it that enabled him to live a full life in Afghanistan. Once he returned to the States and to the Bay Area he opened a gym that NFL Pro Bowlers and MMA title holders began to flock to. For the guys he trained Tareq developed a mantra: Prepare for Death.
Azim [told his athletes] they had a “disease of fear.” To move past it, he said they needed to first imagine the worst that could happen to them now, today. Invariably the athletes said they could die. Azim told them that they’d die anyway and that they needed to prepare for it, much as he had in Afghanistan. By preparing for death, they could fully realize the gift that was life, and live as fully realized people, not just myopic professional athletes. None of this would be easy. To move beyond fear, they — tough NFL players and combat sport pros — had to first acknowledge they were fearful, which meant allowing themselves to be vulnerable, which meant being honest with themselves and everyone who walked into the gym. And if they sought this level of truth, they could, as the Quran put it, be excellent in everything they did.
Tareq’s worldview changed my life. It led me to study my own actions, which in turn led me to study the ancient Stoics, to read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Seneca’s letters and to find in Stoicism a truth about a well-lived life that Tareq Azim knew, too: Memento Mori.
“Remember that you will die.”
And that’s part of what I shared with the middle-aged journalist who’d taken my class on writing, at the end of a day in which I’d written a few more pages of a script, researched my forthcoming book and mapped out themes for subsequent blog posts.
I do all this, I said, because God has given me the chance to, because the gift of life should not be ignored, not even for a day, and the best way to focus on what you can do, right now, is to hold in your mind how all of this will end.
New to my blog? I'm an award-winning journalist and best-selling author. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I'm now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.