Gary Vaynerchuck was once asked by a woman to give her three words of inspiration for whenever she is feeling down. His answer? “You’re gonna die.” Let’s ignore for a moment that it’s technically four words (or even five) and just focus on the gravity of those simple words. We are going to die. We all have been given a certain amount of time on this planet and we won’t be here forever. I actually think that facing an end to our life shouldn’t be scary at all. It should be motivating and inspiring. To do what we have to do before it’s too late.
Death is the most certain thing in our lives. That and taxes. We come from this earth and sooner or later we will return to it. It’s the circle of life, we all know from The Lion King. The only problem is that too many of us won’t or don’t want to accept this certainty. Instead we live as if we are immortal, that it doesn’t matter if we waste a day, a week or even a year, because we assume there will always be a next one. Actually Jimmy Chin explained it a little better after surviving a Level 3 avalanche: “It’s not a sense of immortality, but rather no sense of mortality.” We are so afraid of death, that as some sort of defense mechanism, we pretend as if it doesn’t exist. We falsely assume that we always have a tomorrow and thus we keep procrastinating on the things we want to do. We take each day on this earth for granted and once we shockingly realize that yes, we actually are going to die, we start having regrets.
Fear is a warning system designed to protect us from harm. For example, if you really want to talk to this girl, you might be afraid of rejection and embarrassment, and decide not to talk to her. Or you want to express your thoughts, but the fear of criticism prevents you from writing your article or book. So if we always acted according to our fear, we wouldn’t be doing anything at all. Or at least not the things we want to do. But what we can do is acknowledge our warning system, then think about if what we are about to is either absolutely stupid and we really shouldn’t do it, or if it’s absolutely stupid, but we really should do it in spite of all the sirens and red alerts. It’s up to us to let fear be a factor or not.
Now think about it. Fear can actually protect us from potential embarrassment, criticism, rejection and a lot more, but how can it protect us from death? As we all know by now, we will die no matter how afraid we are of it. So, it’s a completely irrational fear that drives us mad, because there is nothing we can do about it.
Once I started thinking about this topic a bit more, I remembered the short version of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to see the difference.” I think what we all need is a good portion of serenity, so we can accept death as this certainty we cannot change. A few months ago I started reading a bit more about the philosophy of stoicism as taught by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus and Ryan Holiday, a more modern stoic. It basically teaches us that we have no control over anything that happens outside of us and we need to learn how to deal with each situation we are facing in the best possible way.
We may not be at fault for everything that happens to us, but we are always responsible for how we let it affect us. We need to control ourselves and our minds.
Once we are fully aware of our certain passing to the Grey Havens (Lord of The Rings reference), I believe that we can appreciate our lives a lot more. Let’s go through a modern worst case scenario: You wake up too late and have to skip breakfast. Then your car won’t start, the traffic is horrible and you come late to work. Then your “loveable” boss yells at you and once you come home, your girlfriend doesn’t want to do the kinky stuff you always wanted to try out. Everything just sucks, right? Not really, because at the end of the day, no matter how shitty it has been, you can at least still say that you are alive. And that is a lot more than many less fortunate people around the world can say.
That is one of the things I’ve learned while reading ‘I am Malala’ written by noble peace price recipient Malala Yousafzai. Learning about the horrendous events that happen in countries like Pakistan enables you to see the world, but also our own life, from a different perspective. School bombings, assassinations, public executions are among the many horrible daily occurrences in this country. No one on this planet should live like this and we are extremely fortunate to be in our relatively safe environment.
Another thing I learned about Malala is her admirable dedication to a greater cause. In her book she stated, that “hearing I was being targeted [by the Taliban] didn’t worry me. It seemed to me that everyone knows they will die one day. My feeling was that nobody can stop death; it doesn’t matter if it comes from a talib or cancer. So I should do whatever I want to do.” Let that sink in. Not only does this young girl of 19 years fully understand that death awaits us all, but that it also gives her the power to do what she thinks is right. And she knows that better than any of us. She was being targeted by the Taliban for being an outspoken activist for women’s rights and education, got shot in the head by one of their members and miraculously survived. Ironically, this incident made her more well-known worldwide and gave her an even bigger podium to speak from.
And this is why I admire her so much, because she literally and figuratively stared death right in the face and yet, she continues to fight her war for education and women’s rights. She is willing to put her own life on the line for this greater cause and I wondered if that is not real question. Not so much what we should do that is worth living for, but what we should do that is worth dying for? It has nothing to do with being a martyr or not valuing our own lives, instead it has everything to do with finding a purpose. If we have one and we are determined to live it every day, then not even the prospect of death can hold us back. Like Charles Bukowski once said: “You can’t beat death, but you can beat death in life.” Purpose gives our life meaning and it is what makes us feel alive.
Not every purpose has to be the same as or even similar to Malalas, Ghandis or Mandelas, but it’s simply about finding out what we want to do for the rest of our lives. Because I believe by living our purpose we automatically surround ourselves with like-minded people and everyone benefits from this sense of community. As Marianne Williamson famously wrote: “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Ok, you probably know this quote from the movie ‘Coach Carter’. Admit it.
We all know at least one of “People Are Awesome” compilations on YouTube, right? Some of the people in these videos are staring death right in the face as well by performing death-defying stunts or climbing dangerous mountains with awesome music in the background. For many outsiders this looks completely ludicrous and I’ve read a lot of comments that those people “have no appreciation for life”, that they are “taking too many unnecessary and stupid risks” and that it’s just “a waste of life”. But I think the complete opposite is true. Yes, I’m fully aware that people die tragically doing those things and it’s a horrible loss for the family, friends and relatives. But so many of them dedicate their lives to a certain profession that they are passionate about and I think dying for it, is the one and only way to go. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes by saying that, and if you have lost someone this way, then I’m truly sorry. I just figured for myself that if I had to decide between living a short, but happy and fulfilled life or a long, but unhappy and miserable one, I would choose the short life any day of the week.
In Germany I could have had better chances of leading a long life, but certainly not a happy one. Since I’ve started traveling there were a few occasions, where I almost died, but I always accepted the responsibility for my decisions. If that was my way to go, then at least I would’ve died knowing that for once in my life I did what I always wanted to do. And I still believe that. Fortunately for me, the chance of me dying by writing is not that high. Unless I get a horrible cramp in my hand and it turns into a full-blown paralysis. If that’s a thing. Of course we all want to live a long, happy and fulfilled life! That’s the best case scenario. But if mountain climbing, jumping of sky scrapers or surfing brings happiness and fulfillment into someone’s life, then it shouldn’t be too surprising if it’s cut relatively short. Is it tragic? Yes, it is. Is it a waste of life? No, it is not.
I repeat it one more time: We are all going to die. We may not know when it’s going to happen, but we still have the power to decide how we will leave this earth. If we die a happy person or not, is entirely up to us. And to finish it off with one last one quote from Marcus Aurelius: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”