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Weekly 3: Envisioning death to be more alive

Summary: Write your own obituary. Spend time with your key people. Think of your eventual death as a

Idea Journal Weekly 3

June 16 · Issue #91 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Write your own obituary. Spend time with your key people. Think of your eventual death as a project deadline. (~6 min read)

#1. “Most people die with their music still in them.”
In his book And Never Stop Dancing, psychiatrist Gordon Livingston suggests that the exercise of writing your own obituary, starting in your twenties and revising it every year or two thereafter, can be illuminating.
As he puts it: “What better way to confront who we are, what we’re doing, what it all means, and whether we’re making any progress toward becoming the people we would like to be remembered as?”
Obituaries you read in a newspaper tend to emphasize only the positive aspects of the person who has passed. As Livingston points out, this is natural and appropriate: “he’s dead after all, why bring up his alcoholism, his tendency toward infidelity, his neglect of his children?”
In Livingston’s experience, when people write their own obituaries, they tend to be more balanced. It’s still a work of fiction, but for example, “mistakes they made as parents are frequently placed side by side with statements of love for and pride in their children.”
Thinking about how we would like to be remembered focuses our attention not only on what we have done, but more importantly on what we have failed to do with our lives – the regrets most of us feel about our unfulfilled dreams.
As Livingston notes, few of us are living the lives we imagined for ourselves when we were young. We may be better off financially than we would have predicted, but it’s unusual for someone to report that they are happier than they thought they would be.
That’s why the advantage of writing your own obituary is that there’s still a possibility of changing and adding to it.
Livingston cites a line from the musician Bob Dylan: “He not busy being born is busy dying.“
#2. Which people would you think about most on your deathbed?
In an interview with the entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, writer and creator of the Wait But Why blog Tim Urban says that he uses what he calls the “Deathbed Test” to help decide which people in his life he should spend the most time with.
As he points out, it’s only in the fog of our day-to-day rush that we think it makes sense to neglect our most important relationships. But a person’s deathbed “offers a level of zoomed-out clarity that’s hard to get in our normal lives.”
For Urban, the Deathbed Test helps to ensure that he’s doing 2 things:
1. Spending time with the people he cares about most by asking the question: “Is this someone I might be thinking about when I’m on my deathbed?”
2. Spending enough high-quality time with those key people by asking the question: “If I were on my deathbed today, would I be happy with the amount of time I spent with this person?”
The people who matter most to you are always in competition with your work and with other people, and the Deathbed Test is a good reminder that the only way to spend the right amount of time with your key people is to say no to a lot of other people and things.
As he puts it, the point of the Deathbed Test is that by the time you’re on your deathbed, it’s too late to change anything: “so we want to do whatever we can to access that magical end-of-life clarity before the end of life actually happens.“
#3. Deadlines help us focus our attention and efforts
Author Robert Greene writes in The Laws of Human Nature that when we disconnect ourselves from the reality of our own mortality, we distort our relationship with time.
We imagine that we have more time than we actually do: “Our minds drift to the future, where all our hopes and wishes will be fulfilled.”
If we have a plan or a goal, we often find it hard to commit to it with a lot of energy – we’ll get to it tomorrow, we tell ourselves. It can be hard to choose among all the things we want to accomplish, and the result is that we feel a generalized anxiety – we know we need to get things done, but we are always postponing and scattering our attention and efforts.
For Greene, the antidote to that anxiety and feeling of distraction is to consciously acknowledge the shortness of life, and to use that awareness to clarify your daily actions.
After all, given the uncertainties of life we could die tomorrow, and our current project could be our last.
This awareness can help us commit completely to what we do – we have goals to reach, relationships to improve, and from this view petty squabbles and side pursuits as irritating distractions.
Greene points out that many of us already do this on a smaller scale in our daily lives.
When a project deadline is forced upon us, that dreamlike relationship to time is shattered. We’re able to focus and accomplish in days what might normally take weeks or months. It can be invigorating to feel the total commitment to a single purpose.
For Greene, the key is to have the same focus and sense of urgency about your life and eventual death – to think of your mortality as a kind of continual deadline.
Quote of the Week
“… let us deprive death of its strangeness … We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practise death is to practise freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”
-… Philosopher Michel de Montaigne in his essay To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die
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