Death arrives just once. It is an event which we do have some say over, like a farmer tending his crop toward a full ripening at the apparent time appointed according to the planting and expected period of harvest. Yet, though the farmer spends much time, energy, and study on tending their crops, there is always some chance of frost, or flood, or pestilence, or ravenous beast coming and ruining all at an unexpected hour or day. So too our lives: planned in accordance with the insurance agent’s actuarial tables; provisioned with some number of years for childhood, another allotment of years for youth, still more for marriage, career and family, and a special time thereafter just for ourselves, before the last and final allotment of empty eternity following death. This hoped for plan of life unfolding and expected stages is easy for us each to wish and prepare for, as it is the default plan which we each mostly learn and understand…nearly every one of us expecting to die only after a long life and at a ripe, complete, and contented old age.
And many oldsters do indeed go to their death with some seeming satisfaction that they have lived and played life well. We who remain behind like to think that that the aged mostly die at peace with their course, at rest with their journey, at quiet with their good and timely end. But what of those who go early? Do we not often lament that such were “taken too soon” and “before their time” or muse at God’s mysterious ways and intervention?
Our protest over early death is perhaps due to a sense of life having been cheated, cheated out of time, time owned us all by virtue of our being born. Or maybe we feel the early departed were not probably ready to go…as who expects to go so soon, and before their time? But isn’t this expectation folly..? For whom among us was ever guaranteed long life? And whom among us would be reasonable to accept such feign and impossible promise?
Believe long life possible? Perhaps…
But a certainty? This is folly.
Not being ready for untimely death is the more realistic end we all likely face. An innocent fading from being in a sudden moment we did not foresee or expect. A goodbye for which we were never prepared. This is the last end most of us may ever know. An exit we never knew, or wanted, or expected; some probable moments of horror and confusion when the lights are suddenly flickering off while we desperately attempt to open our eyes wide just one…last…time. One failing final time… Straining our orbs to gather with jealous terror the failing light we somehow thought would shine with only diminishing brilliance until we knew it was our time to go. And then we could close our eyes, on our terms, and at the right time; the time when our lives were supposed to end. But that isn’t how death is likely to play out, is it? More likely, we turn around one day, and death has had its way and we are no more forevermore. But how does one prepare for that?
Maybe we can somehow prepare… Perhaps we can indeed make ourselves ready for death’s untimely arrival. And when then the end does suddenly come, we can turn and go to nothing in peace. Such is the objective I wish to share now. Such is the way I do one day hope to go. Maybe now, even. Yes, even now I shall be ever ready to go.
First, I must gather and maintain some Fortune. Something not for myself, but resources to leave behind for those in my life who do now need and depend on me. Some resources to help those I love weather my departure better, or at least worry less about money than the challenges of carrying on. A good insurance policy may suffice. A little land, and some savings might be good. And of course, a proper last will and testament, along with a plan for my own last rites.
Next, I must attend my relations, my Family, be they my blood or the people who make up the community of those whom I love, and from whom I am in turn loved. I must strive after these relations to ensure they are well maintained at all times, with all wished for or needed words spoken before sundown each day, making me ready to lie down my head to sleep, at peace with my settled connections should I never rise.
Finally, my Fame, which is nothing more than the legacy of my own experience and impression of this thing of life, put down in words, or with the colors of paint, or music, or craft, or speech, of whatever means I might use to convey whatever I have come to know and deem worth sharing of my brief time at life. My fame is nothing more than the decided remembrance which I choose to leave behind after I am gone.
These are the things I must do to ensure that I am ready to die. These are the steps and actions which I will take today and every day ahead of my death. And these are the things which, once done, will help me to go forward to nothing without any longing backward glance. My life having been lived, today, and tomorrow, and again should there be another day. A life considered, and shared, and complete—even if my end comes before my life is seemingly done.
Alone in the wild I can feel my breathing. Whereas when I am with my fellows, in the seeming safe and sound, breathing is thoughtless and automatic. Out here, I wonder at the keen apparatus which keeps me going. What if it simply stopped? Why in the world does it continue? No guarantees. There is no one to catch my fall. There never really was.
Go to the desert to remember mortality
The desert wind is a better reminder of death than a sea breeze. It is the heat and the dry that does it, and the sound the wind makes blowing through cactus and scrub. And the sand...everything gritty and hard, getting in your mouth and coating the skin with dust. Therefore, go to the desert to remember mortality. Leave the sea for soft dreams of forever.
I've been around long enough to watch many fall away and die. Some go quickly, others slowly. Some see it coming while others are gone without their even seeming to know. I sometimes pretend I've just a minute to live—sixty-seconds 'till lights out. I do this as a sort of reminder and practice of my mortality. As a swimmer, I know that a minute is about as long as I can hold my breath while not resting. So, a minute is what I give myself when I rehearse this game of final moments—sixty seconds of life when the countdown timer begins ticking loudly in my ear. What to do in that time? How to best make use of my last minute of life?
How would you engage your mind
If you had one breath left?
As a Stoic, my final knowing minute of life should be nothing more than a restful countdown. Maybe, if someone I loved was nearby, I would walk over and give them a reassuring last hug and smile. If no one dear is near, then I would sit or recline where I could, and fix my attention upon some object of interest, or perhaps close my eyes and just listen and measure my breathe. I would not withdraw, however, too deep into the mind. I would remain in the here and now. I would just be for as long as I have left to be.
Life's end may be eased with practiced effort. A simple, daily reminder to always be ready to die will help us to put our affairs in order ahead of unplanned departure. Do this in the morning, first thing after we are fully woke, and fed, and just before our routine of work begins. Remind ourselves to be ready to die; asking after our affairs regarding our estate and the care of our loved ones, our connections and the state of our relations, and our art—namely, have we spoke all we wanted to say to everyone we wished to say our best words to?
Then, begin the day ready to both live well and die well. Take not even the most routine moment for granted. Find some way to improve the world through living such that death—should it come next moment—will not be attended by panic or reflection upon time or opportunities lost, but instead a simple, final act and meditation of peace before oblivion's return.
Living to simply exist
What matters a long life if the living is only to pass the time? What kind of living is it to exist in a bunker against the light, with the windows covered and the candles snuffed out? That is an extreme example, of course—as even the most cautious among us live largely in the open. But there is a refuge within the mind that is not unlike a war bunker. It is a place to retreat and hide and stay safe while the world swirls and grinds and churns and makes scary noises—and where we can stay safe even when it does not. "Take care" we say and "stay safe" while we walk together out in the open—all the while peeking from behind heavy blinders within the mind. I am not saying this is a bad thing necessarily, as the world is indeed a dangerous place... The swirls and grinds and churns and scary noises are quite real, out there. But, so too is the stillness and the quiet and the mute empty of retreat.
Would you trade some years of life
For some days of living?
Would I rather live long in the dark or die soon in the light? But maybe, I can convince myself that the darkness is not really so dark after all? Longevity is the thing... Grandma lived to a ripe old age of one-hundred and five! What a dear life... So many years. Steve Irwin lived to be only forty-four... Such a short life... So few years.
I am not suggesting that we die young. Or that we turn our noses on long life and take scary risks. But only that instead of asking after the number of our years we instead inquire as to their quality. How well did grandma live according to grandma's own estimation? If she reckoned her one-hundred and five years mostly well-spent, then what a well-lived life, indeed. I suspect Steve Irwin would not reckon his short life a poor one. Likewise, what a well-lived life, indeed.
And now, what about us..? If you are now reading this—as I am now writing it, and thinking these thoughts over—then we each have some time yet to live. What is a good use of time now and tomorrow? How well can we live out these days? What efforts to pursue virtue?
How to best pursue and live The Good Life?