It’s not that I’m obsessed with death. Okay, maybe it started that way. I’ve been thinking an awful lot about death ever since I first learned that it’s a thing. At times, my interest wasn’t exactly healthy. I spent most of my childhood fantasizing about death, because I was hurting and the thought of an end to that pain comforted me. That’s not good, but it’s where I was. I guess, yes, obsessed.
I wouldn’t wish that early part of my journey on anyone, but I also wouldn’t trade it. Those dark years I spent fixated on death, though painful, were what positioned me on a path toward eventual unimaginable happiness. It was death that put me on that path. It’s been death that’s led me down that path. And it’s death I will follow to its end. If my level of happiness (by which I mean a sense of excitement, inspiration, reverence, purpose and peace) continues to increase at the same rate it has been on this first part of my life, I believe I will meet my end by vibrating from pure joy progressively until the cells of my body dissipate into a cloud of giggles and glitter. I mean, a person can only be so happy, right?
I wasn’t always happy. Far from it, I remember the first time I ever felt anything I’d describe as happiness, and I was 15 years old at the time. But now, I truly feel like I’ve found the secret to life, and wouldn’t you know, it was death all long.
It’s true that my interest in death started because I knew it could end me. And sadly, I felt like someone who need to end. But by luck and happenstance, I did not end then. I went on. And as I found other, healthier ways to deal with my pain, death lost its appeal. But it did not lose its familiarity. It was something I was already accustomed to thinking about. A lot. And something I had always thought of as something that could help me. That was my gift. Because while I was wrong about the way in which death would help me, I was absolutely right that it would.
How does death help me? In so, so many ways. Every day, all the time. It’s rare that a day goes by now that I don’t notice a way in which death is helping me, in totally healthy, joyful ways. This might sound weird. Most people don’t usually think of death as a happy thing to think about. And I realize that my relationship with death is a bit of a luxury, one that I paid for as a child. It’s only after spending decades giving heavy thought to death that I now enjoy these rich benefits. And I’m not sure it’s possible for someone to experience them without having put in the time, without having sat with death and with the necessary pain that accompanies death, for quite some time.
But maybe the benefits can be learned. Maybe one can befriend death without spending years in pain first. Maybe if someone knew what to look for, they could skip right to the good stuff! Maybe that someone is reading this.
I guess before you can determine whether you can experience these benefits from thinking about death, I should tell you what they are. There are really more ways death helps me than I can list, but I’ll start with a few.
For one thing, death makes food taste better.
This was the first clear benefit of thinking about death that I remember consciously noticing – the way in which attention to death could bring out rich flavors in my food. Now I use it kind of like seasoning. Whenever I think of it, while I’m eating, I take a moment before a bite to think about death. Not just any death, but MY death. My real and certain and final death. I imagine it as if it were about to happen right now. Then I breathe and take a bite.
I don’t know why this works, but wow, you’ve never tasted anything so amazing as a bite of food flavored by death. It almost doesn’t even matter what food it is. I first noticed it with a strawberry but have since tried it on everything from plain bread to salad to cake. And I actually don’t notice the ecstatic effect any more with cake than I do with salad. Whatever I’m eating, when I call my death into the front of my mind, will be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
Want another one? Death helps improve body image. There’s nothing that will make you love your body quite like acknowledging that it’s not for keeps. Holding death close in mind, I’m reminded of all that my body has done, and continues to do, for me. And how extraordinary it is that it’s mine, that I can move it and feel it and inhabit it like this. Looking at myself in the mirror, right in my eyes, and seeing myself as someone who will die, I see a light in my eyes and a warm softness in my face, and I feel beautiful. I even appear visibly more beautiful to myself when I look in this way.
And not only does it make me feel better about my body, it also motivates me to take better care of my body. Often those two things – feeling happy with how you look and feeling motivated to get in shape – don’t go together. We either feel good about how we look now or we feel compelled to get in better shape. But reflecting on my mortality, I actually feel both. Recognizing that I am temporary, I see myself as precious, and therefore I both love myself as I am and want to take care of myself. This is good for my body image now and a good sign for my body image in the future.
A third way death helps me is with gratitude. If you haven’t heard of the many benefits (link) enjoyed by people who regularly practice gratitude, you should look into it. There are too many to list here. But it seems there is almost nothing that can’t be helped by a healthy dose of gratitude. It makes you happier, healthier, more successful and effective, more likable.
But life is often hard and annoying and mundane and stressful. So gratitude isn’t always the most obvious reaction to what life’s offering. Even when I can remember to try and feel grateful, sometimes the feeling just doesn’t come. No, I’m not grateful. I’m tired, and the house is messy, and my kids are whining at me, and I have a headache. I can’t force it!
Enter death. In almost any situation, no matter how stressful or annoying or uncomfortable, a quick pause to reflect on death gives me the perspective I need to count my blessings. Because none of this is a given. Not my messy house nor my whining children nor my head that sometimes hurts. These are all gifts. The very moment in which I am experiencing those things is a gift. That I can and will die means these moments are limited and therefore precious. But I have them. I am rich in reality, and in life. Gratitude.
Those are three examples of ways death helps me on a regular basis, and I’m not exaggerating when I say there are at least dozens more. Stay tuned. I’ll be back to share some of them. Until then, may your life feel as rich and vibrant and miraculous to you as mine does to me when I’m thinking about death.