BE ALWAYS READY TO DIE
“Under the daily expectation of death,
we shall be without wealth, and shall
forgive all things to all men.”
Death arrives just once. It is an event which we do have some say over; like a farmer tending his crops towards their full ripening at the time appointed according to their planting and expected period of harvest. Yet though he spends much time, energy and study on tending his crops, there is always some chance of frost, or flood, or pestilence, or ravenous beast, coming and ruining it all at an unexpected hour or day. So too our lives, planned out 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 to death. And then our life is done. This hoped for scenario is easy to prepare for, as it is the default plan. Everyone expects to die at a ripe old age; and most oldsters go to their death with some seeming satisfaction that they have played the game right. But what of those who go early? Do not we always lament, “they were taken too soon.”
Our lament over early death is perhaps due to a sense of being cheated, cheated out of time, time owned to us by virtue of our being born. Or maybe we feel we are not ready, as who expects to go so soon? But isn’t this folly? Who is guaranteed of long life? And who among us is reasonable to accept such a guarantee? Believe it possible perhaps, probable maybe, but certainty—folly. Not being ready is more understandable. So, let us become ready.
We are ready for death when we live well. But to live well we must know what it means to live well. We need objectives for our life, something to strive for, a way of doing and being which is worthwhile, a standard to follow. We also need principles. These are different from objectives, as principles are the tools we use to construct a worthwhile life, a life capable of moving in the direction of the objectives, over and around obstacles, and through the times we might otherwise want to give up.
So, before we can be ready for death, we must be ready for life. We must outfit ourselves with a purpose and a means to achieve our worthy ends. And then begin living that life. And when death finally comes, we will meet it well, wherever it happens, at whatever age, and whatever circumstances; satisfied we have lived well, and good, and for a reason.
The rest of this book outlines how I handled this challenge in my own life. The objectives and principles I produced and lived for, which brought me some peace well before my end.
Alone in the wild
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.
The desert wind is a better reminder
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.
Holding our breath
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.
Steve Irwin, dead at forty-four
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?