For over 10 years, my 78-year-old mom keeps telling me, "I may not be around much longer. I'm going to die someday."
I usually reply, "Yeah, me too."
Given my travels to sketchy countries, this isn't the wisest way to reply to my sensitive mother. Still, I like to remind her (and myself) that anyone can perish at any moment.
A positive morbid thought
As I wrote in Hike Your Own Hike, I think about death often--usually every day, sometimes multiple times per day. It may seem morbid to some but it's incredibly motivating to me.
Recently, I listened to two podcasts that randomly struck the same chord:
1) Tim Ferriss's podcast with the late Terry Laughlin. It's boring podcast unless you're really interested in improving your swimming technique. However, the last 10 minutes are moving because it records Terry Laughlin's positive thoughts in his final days on Earth.
2) The BBC's "Before I Go" podcast.This podcast has many wise nuggets that I'll share on this page. The episode captures the thoughts of four terminally ill individuals.
Then I stumbled onto this Atlantic article: "What It's Like to Learn You're Going to Die." It explains how palliative-care doctors explain the "existential slap” that many people face at the end of their lives.
Finally, I received an advanced copy of Ursula K. Le Guin's latest (and perhaps last) book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. Before I review Guin's book, I want to highlight some of the best excerpts from the "Before I Go" podcast.
Wise words from the BBC podcast
Here are the participants in the podcast:
- Matthew Stride has a brain tumor
- Sophie Sabbage has stage four terminal cancer
- Vivek Gohil is now in a wheelchair due to Duchenne muscular dystrophy
- Mandy Paine has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and needs oxygen to breathe
The whole podcast is moving, but here are the best quotations. Sophie Sabbage said:
Actually, we are all terminal. You don't know your "use by" date any more than I do. And yet I'm kind of expected to live as if I have a gun to my head all the time. And in a way, I have. But anyone can be taken out at any moment.
Most of us are sleepwalking through life. And it's only when we get a massive life shock, sometimes one that brings us to our knees, that we rise to our destiny and start to treasure the moments and realize what matters most to us. And it may take a big shock for that to happen. So I certainly don't judge them because I think it's normal to sleepwalk through life and take it for granted until you're faced with your own mortality in a very serious way.
I just want to have very authentic relationships with people. And I want to live deep and I want to live loud. And I'm not really up for small talk and BS and pretence. I ended some false friendships when I got this disease. Some good friends walked away and never came back. New friends appeared. But the relationships I have now are so rich and reliable. And I know who my friends are and I know who loves me and I know who I love. I'm not willing to invest my time in anyone I don't truly love.
Mandy Paine said:
Live your life to the full. You never know what's around the corner. I've been given my life sentence, as I call it. But actually everybody is going to die. As soon as we are born, we are dying. The first breath we take, that is on our journey to death and people don't realize that. It is very frightning when you die, but there's nothing we can do about it so you have to accept it and get on with life.
Vivek Gohil said:
It's quite strange to think about death as as a positive thing.
Ursula Le Guin's final book
Ursula Le Guin is nearly 90 years old. She's one of the greatest writers of our time.
Sadly, she's stopped writing books. She just blogs.
What may be her final book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, is a collection of some of her blog posts.
The title and cover are enticing.
However, as the cliche says: don't judge books by their title.
Among the 40 chapters, there are few truly deep, introspective, wise, and thought-provoking ones. Several have to do with her beloved cat, Pard.
If you're a big Ursula Le Guin fan, this book is good for you.
However, if you're a real fan, you probably already read all her blog entries already - and there's nothing new here, I believe.
VERDICT: 3 out 10 stars.
The book is coming out December 5, 2017.
Wake up call
My mom had a medical scare that she later described as a "wake up call."
I told her that I have had many wake-up calls in my life. I wrote about one in Colorado when I was yo-yoing the Continental Divide Trail. Then I almost died in the Olympic National Park.
I've had a few close calls in Africa too:
- When my fever reached 41 degrees C due to malaria, the doctor told me that he's had patients die at that temp.
- I nearly flew my car off of a few steep and tall sand dunes in Chad.
- I nearly died of thirst in Niger.
- I was hypothermic in Madagascar's tallest mountain.
- I was strangled in Cameroon.
Wake up calls are invigorating. Most people don't have enough of them. Most don't get their first wake up call until they're diagnosed with cancer or some other death sentence.
I hope this article serves as a wake-up call for you. If it strikes a chord, do this exercise:
Close your eyes and imagine that you have just four years to live. What would you do with your time?
Some people say, "Live this day as if it's your last." That's poetic but it's stupid advice. If I knew an asteroid will destroy us tomorrow, I would certainly not be writing this article right now.
Even imagining your death in a few months or one year could be unwise for similar reasons.
However, if you have just five years to live, then you have a sense of urgency but not panic. You can plan and not be a short-sighted hedonist.
So imagine that you have 3-5 years to live. What would you do differently than what you're doing today? Would you re-arrange your friendships? Your job?
Whatever the answers, start making those changes now.
Because as we see from all the freak terrorist acts and mass shootings, you might not have even five years to live. Make that thought an empowering one, not a debilitating one.
Lastly, my TEDx talk might help:
One month after I wrote this article a close friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer. An existential slap for my dear friend. But also for me. And you. Now go live.