How to Gain a Sense of Your Own Mortality

The Old Cemetary

I woke up this morning in pain again.

I injured my shoulder wrestling a few weeks ago, and it doesn’t seem to be healing. Certainly not as fast as it would have healed when I was in my 30s.

This is one of the many execrable things that happen to you when you reach 60. But it’s hardly the worst. The worst is that you can’t avoid thinking about death. People you know—colleagues, friends, and family members—are seriously sick or dying.

Right now, I see death as a hateful thief—ready to rob me of the time I need to accomplish the goals I have yet to accomplish.

There is so much still to do: books to write, movies to make, business to conduct, and places to see. But most of all, there are relationships I owe time to.

A reader recently wrote asking me why, when discussing how I spend my day, I don’t talk about the time I spend with my family and friends. The main reason is that I don’t feel I should be dragging them into public view without their permission.

But another reason is that I write mostly about what I’ve learned… and I haven’t learned how to do a very good job of that.

When I think about making good use of the time I have left, it’s clear to me that working on my personal relationships should be my top priority.

So why don’t I do that now?

I once read a book called The Denial of Death. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember what I took away from it: It is frightening to consciously recognize our mortality—to be fully aware that one day, we will cease to exist.

The fear of death is so great, in fact, that the reality of death must be suppressed from our consciousness so we can go forward with our lives.

In other words, we deny death in order to live fully.

I think this is true. Especially for the young. But as we age, it becomes more difficult to keep death away from our thinking.

And eventually, we come to a crossroad where we must decide: Should I continue to deny death, to “rage against the dying of the light”? Or should I learn to accept the fact that we are all dead men on leave, and learn to live, as Thomas Ken said, “that I may dread the grave as little as my bed”?

I think we can do both. We can continue to live our lives fully and purposefully—even embracing long-term goals—while gradually allowing the reality of death to sit comfortably in our psyches.

Here are four steps you can take today to get yourself on that track:

1. Spend 15 minutes by yourself thinking about mortality.

Take a walk. Find a peaceful place. Breathe slowly. Look around. Recognize that one day—sooner than you can believe—you will not exist anymore. You will not be around to breathe the clean air, feel the sun on your skin, and see the things you find beautiful. You will not be around to hear the sound of your lover’s sigh, your children’s voices, and your best friend’s laughter.

Try to get, as clearly as you can, a sense of your own mortality. Try to stop, if only for a few moments, a fundamental aspect of consciousness—the denial of death.

Use that recognition to get to the next step.

2. Imagine your own funeral. Visualize four people who are speaking about you. One is your spouse or significant other. Another is a child or parent. The next is a friend. And the fourth is someone involved in your career. Imagine what they would say about you if you died tomorrow. Be honest.

3. If there is a difference between what you think those four people would say about you and what you’d like them to say, you’ve got some work to do.

Turn what you’d like them to say about you into your primary goals, and write them down. (Ideally, your primary goals should cover all four of the major areas of your life, and include health goals, wealth goals, personal goals, and social goals.)

Then, break down those core goals into seven-year and one-year objectives. If you don’t understand exactly what I’m talking about, read my book, The Pledge: Your Master Plan for an Abundant Life. (Note: I wrote this book under my former pen name, Michael Masterson.)

4. Make a commitment to respect the time you have. That means living in such a way that you honor your core life goals, as well as other important but nonessential life goals.

The best way to do this is to make your core life goals a priority. And that means attending to them during that first precious hour of your working day, before you get to all your other daily obligations.

Don’t think you can put off working on your core goals until sometime in the future.

Use your newly acquired ability to face your mortality to motivate you. Get the most important things done first.

I’m saying “you” here, but I’m thinking “I.” I’ve got to do this, and I’m going to start doing it right now.

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  • Cocoroo

    As I was reading Mark Ford’s column today, I was struck
    by the vast difference of beliefs concerning death that we have. He talks of
    death as a thief, robbing him of the time to accomplish the goals he wants to
    accomplish. He talks of death as ceasing to exist once he dies and that he
    doesn’t know how to make the most of the relationships that he wants to. It
    sounds like it is a belief rooted in fear of ceasing to exist and to do as much
    as humanly possible because once you are gone, you are gone.

    In my belief system, death is simply opening a door to
    another room. I believe that we lived before we came here as spirit beings
    learning and growing until we reached a place where we needed to come to earth
    and gain a physical body. Our spiritual self resides in this physical body. We
    were organized as families there and had friends and teachers. We came into
    this world to learn how to use this body and control the appetites and feelings
    of this body. We came to learn and to grow and experience good and evil and
    pain and pleasure. We came to be part of family units and to bring children
    into the world to teach them and nurture them. I realize that not all parents
    are good and not all circumstances people are born into are ideal, but we were
    all given what we need to learn and grow in our circumstances. When we “die” we
    are just moving on to another realm where we will continue to learn and
    progress. We can have family units after we die and we will know our friends
    and relatives that have gone before. My family likes to call it, “homecoming”
    and “grand family reunion.” We never cease to exist. Matter is eternal and
    even though it changes form… spiritual to physical etc, it still exists.

    So in light of this belief, there is no fear of
    death…. no mass rush to frantically accomplish all you think you need to
    before you leave. There is only building relationships, creating a world here
    where people can learn and grow and be fed physically as well as spiritually,
    and accomplishing what you feel you need to accomplish before you leave this
    world. In this world, what matters is learning to care for your body and mind,
    caring for your environment, caring for people and helping to strengthen them,
    and becoming the best you know how. All we can take into the next realm is our
    knowledge and talents and our relationships. If you knew that all you could
    take with you is your knowledge and talents and relationships, would that change
    what you were doing today to build better relationships among family and
    friends? Would that give relationships a higher priority? Would you incorporate
    building relationships into your business dealings and live so that you knew you
    were doing what was best for your family, your friends, and the world?

    Life is a gift, the gift of a physical body to use to
    be the best you can be. Death is simply opening the door to another room where
    you continue on, your nature and what you learned here coming with you. There
    you will be surrounded with family and friends, unless you have so destroyed
    what relationships you could have had with bad actions and bad attitudes. With
    that in mind, it is important to be as physically able as you can be, overcoming
    habits that do not serve you or others, and strengthening ties to family and
    friends. What you do in life for work is not as important as how you do it.
    Whether it be copy writing, Internet businesses, health information
    distributing, working for someone else, teaching in a school, or being a street
    sweeper, you can always be the best person you can be, being honorable and kind
    to others and striving to build others up and strengthen family ties.

    Anyway, There will always be books to write, movies to
    make, business to conduct, and places to see. But who is to say that this earth
    is the only place that those things can be done? One of my best friends over 30
    years ago, when dying of breast cancer, told her father the night before she
    died, “Daddy, don’t grieve for me, I am going on the most marvelous adventure
    and will be able to see and do things I have never been able to do before!” If
    death is the grand adventure, then life must be to learn and prepare yourself in
    all ways.

    I don’t fear death and I enjoy life, especially with
    family and friends and business colleagues. The older I get, the more I know
    that death is inevitable for all of us. So let us enjoy life and learn all we
    can and care for one another and be the best we can be. We will never regret