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 spending time with them.
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.
In other words, we deny death in order to be able to live fully.
I think this is true. Especially for the young. But as we age, it becomes more difficult to keep death out of 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. Visualize your own funeral. Imagine that four people stand up to speak about you. One is your spouse or significant other. Another one is a child or parent. Another is a friend. And the fourth is someone involved in your career. What would they be saying 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 the four major areas of your life — i.e., they should 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 (written under the 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 non-essential life goals. The best way to do it is to make your core life goals a priority. 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 some time 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 “me.” I’ve got to do this and I’m going to start doing it right now.