D E AT H
IHAVEARADICAL solution for improving your life: think more about death. No, seriously. When you picture this earthly journey as an unending slog toward the horizon, the trivialities of the day seem insurmountable: Should I buy the full-fat yogurt? Scream at the guy who cut me off? Forgive my husband for not doing the laundry? Now imagine that you have six months to live. The delicious yogurt is a no-brainer, isn’t it? You’d wave the driver through, thinking maybe he’s only got six months to live, too, and he’s on his way to see family. We’re so terrified of death that we train ourselves never to think about it, but thinking about the inevitable clarifies the muddy waters we swim in every day.
There is no better way to achieve that focus than to listen to the words of the dying. As the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in February 2015, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. … I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my pre- dominant feeling is one of gratitude.” He would die, surrounded by loved ones and outlived by his books, seven months later.
When I’m pondering yogurt choices or fuming at other drivers, I try to remember the transcendent television interview the British dramatist Dennis Potter gave as he approached death in 1994. “The nowness has become so vivid that in a perverse sort of way I’m almost serene,” he said. “I can celebrate life.” He spoke with aching power about how he could finally appreciate the beauty of a plum tree in bloom outside his window: “It is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be. I can see it.”
Imagine being able to see with that kind of intensity because you knew the darkness would soon descend. It’s not easy, when we’re caught between the pain of yesterday and the unease of tomorrow. But think about it next time you’re trapped in a traffic jam. At least you have this moment, now, heart beating and eyes open. How lucky you are to have even that.