Embracing Life-Affirming Death Awareness: How to Transform Yourself and Possibly Save Human Civilization
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I never want to forget the prospect of death. Because, if I am ever able to block out those emotions, I will lose the sense of purpose and focus that cancer has given my own life." —Hamilton Jordan , No Such Thing as a Bad Day
"My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. The country (is) caught up in moral decay. (Our leaders) must speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul." —Lee Atwater , Life Magazine, 1991
When he was 55, a newspaper mistakenly printed an obituary of Alfred Nobel, condemning him for his invention of dynamite and stating "the merchant of death is dead." Nobel was so shocked that he created the Nobel Peace Prize.
When he was 41, Anthony Burgess, working unhappily in the British colonial service, was given a terminal diagnosis with one year to live. He quit, wrote five novels in the next year and 11 including Clockwork Orange by age 46.
After serving as Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan contracted several cancers. He wrote in his memoir that cancer was "a strange blessing," and that "after my first cancer, even the smallest joys of life took on a special meaning."
His Republican counterpart Lee Atwater, known for such dirty tricks as claiming off the record that a political opponent "had been hooked up to jumper cables," contracted cancer and then apologized to Michael Dukakis for his "naked cruelty" in running the Willy Horton ad, and repudiated the "Reagan Revolution" he had done so much to create. He wrote in a 1991 Life magazine article, "what power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth. My illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood and relationships that I never understood, and probably never would have. So, from that standpoint, there is some truth and good in everything."
Former CEO Eugene O'Kelley wrote in Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life, that "the present felt to me like a gift. Living in it now, maybe for the first time, I experienced more Perfect Moments and Perfect Days in two weeks than I had in the last five years. (When a CEO) I had barely even considered limiting my office schedule. I wished I'd known then how to be and stay in the present, the way I now knew it."
These people are not alone. Countless lives have been transformed for the better over the centuries by breaking through their denial about their own deaths, whether due to a terminal diagnosis, surviving a serious illness or suicide, engaging in combat, having a serious accident, being a crime victim, or experiencing the death of a loved one.
Many people find their lives enriched by facing death voluntarily, not because they were forced to. In his famous Stanford commencement speech Steve Jobs said that since he was 17, "remembering that I'll be dead soon (has been) 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. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life, don't be trapped by dogma, and most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."