Embracing Life-Affirming Death Awareness: How to Transform Yourself and Possibly Save Human Civilization


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 AtwaterLife 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 ClockworkOrange 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."

Let It Come

In the summer of 1990, I was directing Rebuild America, a think tank whose advisors included Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and semiconductor inventor Robert Noyce, with Gov. Bill Clinton just having agreed to join as well. At 3am one night, I noticed a small fear of death arising, that I automatically pushed it away, and said to myself "Let it come!" I was plunged into the most painful experience of my life, as I felt I was disintegrating, followed by the most ecstatic moments I have ever known. The next morning I quit a sterile full-time politics that was burning me out, and embarked on a spiritual and psychological journey. After a time, I gradually returned to the world of social and political action, enriched and refreshed by my spiritual and psychological explorations.

One of my most moving experiences was spending several months with a psychologist named Jackie McEntee, after she had received a terminal diagnosis. She reported that the diagnosis was a wakeup call which led her to feel far more profoundly, deepened her relationship with her husband Bob, kids and community, and spend her time more purposefully and meaningfully. I asked whether she would rather have lived decades more as she had been living, or these few years as she was living now. She replied: "I call this my Year of Ecstasy. Sublime, incredible things have happened. That's why I wouldn't go back. Even though my previous life was good, it was not the bliss, the splendor, the ecstasy of how I live now."

I asked her what she felt her experience had to teach people who did not face a terminal diagnosis. "I think we need as a society to sustain death in our consciousness. Death is a reality by virtue of life. Our society has been in such a fog, evading death and dying, that I really think we don't live as fully because of that evasion. Well, I've learned to live fully now. And it's my deepest wish that everyone else will also—and without having to go through this kind of illness."       

That is a key question each of us faces. Do we want to wait for a terminal diagnosis, like Eugene O'Kelly or Jackie McEntee, before discovering that facing death could have transformed our lives for the better years earlier? Or do we wish to explore that question now?

There is no whitewashing the fact that feeling our sadness about our approaching deaths is more painful than defending against it. But, as adults, we can stand it. Doing so can release the enormous psychic energy we have been repressing, enriching our lives and leading to a far greater concern for those in need today and all who will follow us.

Feeling Our Sadness

The most important common feature of those whose lives have been enriched by facing their death is that they were willing to experience sadness and even intense pain about having to lose what they value in this life, and then used it as energy to transform their lives for the better.  

One could hear that sadness pulsating through the voice of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as he faced his own pain at social injustice and living under a daily threat of death. Sadness is the opposite of the closed, contracted state we call depression. As in the case of Dr. King, it can energize and activate, connecting people on a far deeper level than anger or outrage.

As Hamilton Jordan suggests, it is possible to "block out" much of the emotional pain that can arise even from a terminal diagnosis. We can use antidepressants, entertainment, constant activity, exercise, and a variety of other means to maintain the denial of death we have practiced since early childhood. As Jordan put it, "Nobody thinks too much on Desolation Row," especially about their own deaths, as long as they keep busy and occupied with other matters. But as he also found, daring to feel one's pain at the prospect of death can transform one's life.

I discovered this truth, to my amazement, when my life was transformed by facing my own eventual death at age 48. When the death anxiety I had been repressing burst to the surface I discovered that facing it, though painful, released enormous energy, appreciation for the preciousness of life, deep reservoirs of feeling I never knew existed, and a deep desire to contribute to the wellbeing of those who would follow me. Indeed, the more emotional pain I was consciously willing to feel about my death, the more truly alive, loving, empathetic and appreciative I felt. It was almost mathematical: more pain, more life; more life, more pain.  

The key was to consciously bring my pain to the surface. We normally avoid doing so as much as possible, and only react with denial, anger, bargaining or depression when we must, which can make it much harder to handle. But when we choose to bring our sadness to the surface so as to release energy for life, as Hamilton Jordan and Lee Atwater found, it can enhance our experience of life in ways we never dreamed possible—and transform our attitudes toward political action as well.

Facing death openly does not necessarily, of course, lead to political action. The opposite is often true. Many people in their retirement years react to reminders of death by turning to meditation and other spiritual and religious practices. They feel they've done enough politically, and they pursue long-deferred creative projects, focus on their grandchildren, face health issues, care for their mates, or conserve their declining energy.

Much of this is healthy for the individual and society. Spiritually inclined, serene and peaceful elders who have moved beyond materialism and frenetic activity can serve as important role models for an America that badly needs to move beyond the "acquisition," frenetic activity and mindless materialism Lee Atwater so rightly decried. "Don't just do something, sit there," as Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein has written. If enough of us experienced “a touch of Enlightenment," the world would be a far better place.

Facing Our Deaths

Facing repressed death anxiety can benefit anyone at any age. In their book, Beyond Death Anxiety: Achieving Life-Affirming Death Awareness, the psychotherapist Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett explain how we first learn we will die between the ages of 3 and 8, and we automatically repress this frightening information. We continue this pattern as adults, rarely reexamining whether it make sense to continue this denial of our death, although we now have the tools to handle it.

They explain how our unconscious death anxiety influences every aspect of our adult lives, including our relationships and our sexuality. We often either unconsciously distance ourselves because true intimacy is so painful, or we violently turn against our partners when we realize they will not be the saviors we imagined. Our anxiety about death affects our child-rearing, as we often partly have children because we wish to live on through them, and then seek to control them so they will be the kind of "immortality vehicle" we seek. Death anxiety also lies at the heart of much of the midlife crisis many undergo, and explains many of our social behaviors as well. We identify with religious, ethnic or national "immortality vehicles" (USA! USA! USA!), because if the "other" triumphs, our own will fail. These processes are unconscious, which is why they have so much power.

The importance of Firestone and Catlett's work is that it is not based upon theory but the actual lived experience of a group of over 100 friends who have broken through much of the death-denial and openly discuss their death anxiety on a regular basis. This experience indicates, first of all, that people can bear it—while painful, surfacing repressed death anxiety does not destroy one's equilibrium, but enhances it. They have discovered that sharing their sadness together is a positive, life-enhancing experience. It also leads to greater empathy and compassion for each other and for the world as a whole.

 Gifts of Death Awareness

Reports by people whose lives have been transformed by facing their own deaths reveal what might be called the gifts of death awareness. Examples of these gifts include:

  • Increased aliveness and vitality: Feeling sadness about our mortality can release enormous reservoirs of psychic energy, aliveness and vitality that is otherwise wasted on repressing our death-feelings.
  • A wider range of feeling: We cannot repress painful feelings without repressing joyful ones as well. Death awareness can widen and deepen our feelings. We find we can stand the painful feelings we have spent a lifetime avoiding. We open up new vistas of love, appreciation, tenderness, joy, compassion, and empathy.
  • Deeper relationships: When we deny our pain about our own death and those of loved ones, we often unconsciously pull away from intimacy. Repressing feelings not only deadens us, but causes us to shrink from the pain that true closeness brings. Consciously facing death can lead to deeper intimacy and love for those closest to us. A friend recently wrote me about attending a funeral and sitting with the sister of the deceased, weeping side by side without saying anything for 15 minutes. It was their most intimate interaction in a decade, and it forged a lifelong bond between them.
  • Increased life-purpose and passion: Like Hamilton Jordan, Steve Jobs and countless others, facing the shortness of time we have left often leads to a greater sense of purpose and focus. Our passion is increased, as we realize that with the time we have left we will create what we wish to create, and enjoy our most precious experiences.  
  • Wider perspective: People facing death commonly report that they gain a greater sense of perspective, are less prone to petty fears, slights, jealousies, and anxieties, and have their sights raised to issues of meaning and the human condition. Facing our mortality broadens our perspective.
  • Great lucidity and sanity: When one becomes exposed to death, often when parents die, many experience a painful but somehow liberating sense of clarity and sanity. As I was flying back to New York from Florida after my father's death, I found myself writing these words: "I have been living as if I will never die, which is a lie. And to live a lie is not really to live at all."
  • Greater creativity: Increased passion often brings greater creativity. As Steve Jobs noted, death-awareness can lead us to commit to following our own path and not be trapped by the opinions of others.
  • Greater compassion and empathy: Death awareness can lead us to focus on what we have in common with our fellow beings. It is not only that we are all going to die, but that we are all facing similar difficulties in dealing with this fact. As we become more feeling, our compassion can also deepen and extend to millions who suffer unnecessarily.
  • The courage to be vulnerable: Though we tend to see courage as involving strength, decisiveness and risk-taking, the greater bravery is daring to feel and display our vulnerability. Facing death leads to a softer and more feeling appreciation of life and closer relationships with those around us.
  • Gratitude, appreciation and awe:  Experiencing our vulnerability as creatures who will die can lead to the most precious possible experiences of appreciation and awe that life even exists, let alone that we have been privileged to participate in it. It is precisely because our time with loved ones, or our opportunity to experience life, is so limited that it is so precious.  
  • Greater esthetic appreciation: Death awareness opens us up to the beauty of life in space and in time. We become more aware of fleeting and infinitely precious moments of beauty.
  • Spiritual openings and the experience of oneness with life: Death awareness can lead to unmediated, direct spiritual experiences in which the personal ego dissolves and we experience a sense of oneness with all life, including the countless humans who have preceded us and those who will follow us. 
  • Greater concern for preserving civilization for future generations: Such death-influenced spiritual experiences can lead to a greater commitment to saving human civilization for our offspring and all who will follow us.

Exploring Life-Affirming Death Awareness

Words are cheap and only useful if they encourage us to experiment for ourselves whether they might be true. This is particularly true for an issue like whether to surface our sadness about death, which goes against the habits of a lifetime. The following exercises are meant to help us explore how we wish to respond to the fact of our eventual deaths. Many of us have never consciously considered this question as adults, continuing the denial of our feelings that we first learned as kids. But we may find now that exploring this issue can enrich and revitalize our lives, as well as all society.

These explorations are intended to help explore two basic issues: 1) feeling rather than denying painful feelings about our eventual death; 2) using these feelings as energy to live with more purpose and compassion. These exercise tend to yield the deepest results if they are preceded by some minutes of quiet reflection.

1. Focus on what unites us.

Pick a time-period—a few hours, a day, longer—in which you focus on what you have in common with each person you see or interact with, whether you know them or not. They, like you, are going to one day die; they, like you, are confused and frightened by this knowledge, and tend to think or feel about it as little as possible; and they, like you, may have a dull look in their eyes, or rigid expression on their face, partly because they are using up precious psychic energy to repress their death anxiety.

Note what you are feeling as you engage in this exercise, particularly any feelings of compassion or empathy for yourself or others. How does this exercise make you feel? Does this exercise in any way change how you feel toward others?

Perhaps extend this exercise by meeting with people you normally dislike or disagree with, and note whether any change in your normal feelings arise as a result.

2. Appreciate a last meal or walk.

Set aside a time when you can eat a meal alone in a quiet place, and imagine it is the last meal you will ever eat. Eat slowly, noting each smell, how each component of the meal tastes, everything it took for this meal to reach you, from the life of the animal or plant involved to the apparatus—farmer, transport, supermarket, etc.—required to get this food to you. Note your feelings at the prospect that this will be the last meal you will ever eat in this lifetime.

Set a time to take a walk, imagining it is the last walk you will ever take on this earth. Walk extremely slowly, taking the time to smell every smell, hear every sound, see every sight. Note the feelings that arise, whether sadness that you will never have this experience again, or gratitude that you have been able to have this experience of life.

As you return to daily life, reflect on whether these experiences change how you might want to eat or take walks from here on out.

3. Appreciate the preciousness of life.

Reflect upon those experiences of life you most value at this point in your life, perhaps making a list of them in order, e.g. your experiences of loved ones, travel, learning, contributing, nature, art, and so on and so forth.

Now notice the feelings that emerge as you go through the list, and imagine never being able to have those experiences again. Note where the feelings of sadness, loss or worse, are most intense. Although you are likely to experience a range of feelings, including a distancing from feeling, focus on any feelings of sadness that arise as you understand dying as losing the experiences of life that you most value.

Reflect on what your sadness tells you about the parts of your life you value most, your deepest regrets, your deepest desire for developing the qualities you desire, your relationship to the violence and injustice of the world, the unfinished business of your life, internal and external. 

4. Appreciate loved ones and friends.

Pick a moment when you can gaze upon a loved one or close friend. Either with eyes closed or open, imagine her head as the skull it will be, her body as the skeleton it will become after she dies. Feel the sadness, the pain of it.

Now return to the present, feel your love for her, your appreciation of the fact that you can have this experience of her.

Note your feelings of appreciation for the fact that you can now experience her, the preciousness of this opportunity to know, interact with and love her.

5. Feel valued by society.

Imagine that you had died today and were reading your obituary in the newspaper. Write out what you imagine it might say.

Imagine you have another 10 years to live, and then write out your obituary as you would like it to appear then.

Conclude by noting the key changes you need to make in your life so as to have your obituary read as you would like it to a decade from now.

6. Set priorities, inner and outer.

Imagine that you are on your deathbed, looking back on your life. (This exercise is best conducted while lying on your back, in a dark room, in the actual position you are most likely to be in while facing your actual end.)

Note the outer events—your accomplishments, impact on your kids, grandkids, community, America, the world—that are the most meaningful to you at this point.   

Note the inner events that are most meaningful—ways in which you developed internally, touching experiences with loved ones, friends, nature, the cosmos, moments of spiritual transcendence, etc.

Note which kinds of experiences are the most meaningful, inner and outer, past and present, or the impact your life will have after you have gone.

Note your feelings about the state of the world you are leaving behind.

Think of those people who have wronged you whom you wish to forgive, or those from whom you wish to ask forgiveness. Perhaps write letters to the most important ones.

After conducting this exercise, reflect on whether the thoughts and feelings you had have any implications for how you want to lead your life from here on out. Did you note any enhanced experiences of aliveness and energy, compassion or love for yourself or others, the world, greater serenity, a greater sense of direction and life-purpose, a greater concern for the environment and the world you are leaving behind, a deeper sense of spirituality and connection to all things?

7. Looking backward, looking forward.

Reflect on the next 10 years of your life— the people with whom you will interact, the places you will visit, the countless feelings you will experience, and so forth. Reflect upon how long these 10 years seem, how rich the many experiences you will have.

Now reflect back on the last 10 years of your life, note how it all seems to have passed in an instant.

Now imagine that you are on your deathbed, looking back on the time between now and when you die. Reflect on how it, too, will seem to have passed in an instant.  

Reflect on any implications this may have for how you want to live from here on out, whether it helps illuminate what is and isn't important to you, whether it seems to call for an increased commitment to any sort of activities or experiences, and so forth.

8. The precious shortness of life.

Imagine your doctor has just told you that you have three years to live in full possession of your health, after which you will decline precipitously and die.

Reflect on what you imagine your priorities, internal and external, would be if you knew you had but three more years to live. Would you change anything about your present life? Relationships? External projects? Inner development? Would you live with greater purpose and waste less time? Would you devote yourself to artistic creation, travel or political activity? How would your relationships with people change? 

Then imagine that your doctor tells you he was mistaken, and you can look forward to a normal lifespan. If you would have lived differently if you had only three years to live, does this have any implications for your future now?

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