Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever; you just have to live.” ~Natalie Babitt
Once a month, I visit the local cemetery and walk around. I’m not there to visit anyone in particular. I’m there to remind myself of my own mortality.
And it always wakes me up.
I soak in the energy: I read the simple legacies on the tombstones, from young children to those who made it to 100 years old. I’m not morose. I’m not negative. I’ve simply found the greatest motivational tool in the world, and I assure you it’s not quotes on Instagram or Pinterest. It’s not the latest YouTube clip.
It’s one thing and one thing only: remembering we are all going to die soon.
How Many Summers Do You Have Left?
Seneca was a roman philosopher who lived 2000 years ago and a leader of the stoic movement. One of his essays, entitled On the Shortness of Life provides a reminder to all of us: our time here is nearly over.
And yet what Seneca argues, and does so brilliantly, is that life isn’t really short. The problem is how we waste so much of our lives on things that don’t matter: wondering what others think, getting caught up in gossip, wasting our lives on social media and the non-essential.
When this happens, it’s no wonder we lack clarity and meaning in our lives. It’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed, overworked, and overstimulated on a daily basis. When we’re in this place, we don’t have the time or energy to think about death.
And yet, our time is running out. I like to think of it this way:
How many more summers do we have left? How many early June mornings with the sun barely making its presence known as we sip coffee do we have left? How many moments with our kids, family, and those who we love do we have left? How many times do we get to do what we love for yet another day?
We don’t know the answer to this, but I do know one thing: it’s much closer than we think, and every day is a gift. Let’s examine why remembering our own mortality is the best way to start living and how you can use it as leverage to live boldly today.
Ask the Tough Questions
Reminding ourselves of our mortality invites us to ask the tough questions from our lives. These are the questions we often avoid, yet are always running in the background:
Who am I?
Why am I here?
Is this life for me?
Am I on my own path, or someone else’s?
Because they’re uncomfortable, they become easy to avoid through busyness, noise, and the endless demands of a 24/7 digital culture. Usually we don’t take any time to face these questions unless someone close to us experiences a crisis (or we do, too).
But within these questions lie powerful answers. They allow us to get honest with ourselves instead of giving in to the usual mental chatter we so often believe. By asking the tough questions, we start to achieve clarity around what matters… and we start discarding what doesn’t.
Release What Doesn’t Serve
When I moved from New York City to Phoenix, I experienced a wow moment. No, it wasn’t the awe-inspiring sunsets, although I love those. It was the moment I realized my walk-in closet was bigger than my old space in Manhattan.
And yet, I realized as time passed, with all this space, I started to accumulate a lot of stuff. One day, as I was preparing for a meditation (yes, my closet doubled as a brilliant meditation room), I realized: I had no space left. I looked around and noticed I barely used anything that was taking up so much space. I was overwhelmed.
Much like our lives, I had filled my space with the non-essential. Remembering our mortality allows for clarity around releasing what doesn’t serve us. These may be habits, mindsets, environments and yes, even people.
Even just doing this step often releases a heavy burden we feel in our lives: there’s too much going on, and it never ends. Once we have space, we feel lighter, clearer and more empowered to start figuring out what we really want.
Clarity Around Our Dreams
“But Tommy…I don’t know, I really don’t know.”
I sat there in a conversation with one of my clients and wasn’t buying it. She was here for a reason, and I wasn’t going to let her off the hook. Of course, I’ve said this before too, and deep down, I was afraid.
My belief is that, deep down, we all know what we want; it’s a matter of the layers we’ve stacked over the years clouding our honesty. This is where using our mortality as leverage truly shines: we get to be honest, unapologetic and share our truth.
Often, we’re afraid to declare what we want for fear of embarrassment, failure, or standing out too much. When faced with our mortality, none of that matters. There’s a dream deep within you waiting to be explored and declared.
The question, then, becomes: Will you have the courage to discover and declare it?
The Power of Urgency
Have you ever had a project due in three months, yet put it off until the last minute and somehow got it all done? We all have. This is the power of urgency, deadlines, and accountability: We get clear, focused, and set boundaries to ensure we finish.
But how often do we do the same with our own lives? Most people don’t operate with any sense of urgency in life; there’s always tomorrow, next week, or next year.
Until there’s not. The beauty of reminding ourselves our time is limited means we’re operating with high levels of urgency, knowing every day truly matters.
When this happens, we say no to the things we should. We tell people how we really feel. And we overcome the resistance on our dreams, the self-doubt, and uncertainty. We feel those yet move forward anyway.
Because the pain of regret hurts more than putting ourselves out there. When this happens, we start to trust ourselves and recognize our dreams are worth it. Best of all: we’re worth bringing them to life.
Integrating This into Your Life
Steve Jobs, in his riveting Stanford commencement speech, said it better than I ever could:
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
So, how do we use our mortality to make bold decisions and start to live our dreams today? You don’t have to be as extreme as I am with visiting your local cemetery, although I’d recommend it.
Here are some of my favorite ways:
Journal about your legacy.
Take yourself twenty, thirty, or forty years down the line. How do you want to be remembered? Write it all down.
Write a letter to your current self.
Again, fast forward to a time in the future when you’re on your last days. Write a letter to your current self, letting them know whatever you wish.
Do a guided meditation.
There are various meditations around visualizing one’s own death (and return back to Earth). These are beautiful ways to face reality and get in touch with what truly matters.
Spend time with older people.
Strike up conversations with people and even your own family who have been on this planet for a while. Often, you’ll find gems of wisdom within them.