Last weekend, I listened to a Sam Harris podcast with Frank Ostaseski on death and dying. It led me to reflect on various experiences as well as grow curious about those of others. Feeling the need for human connection, I reached out to a friend to talk through this with me. As sometimes happens, people are not as responsive as we wish they’d be and I ended up largely considering these ideas alone:
What happens when you die?
Who and what have you lost?
What are you afraid of?
What do you wish you knew?
What are you glad you don’t know?
Asking myself these questions was a way of becoming recognizing the thoughts that underlie many of my actions and ideas. I thought a lot about Jewish traditions around death and mourning where the emphasis is first on never leaving the body and then on preventing the bereaved from retreating into solitude. In fact, the most important prayer recited for 11 months following the death of a parent, spouse, or child is only permitted to be said in the company of at least ten people.
As a kid, I reread the chapter on death and dying from Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul more times than I can count. Since then, I’ve been to funerals, cemeteries, calling hours, and shiva houses. I’ve experienced the deaths of relatives, family friends, peers, and former students. I don’t think death scares me, but I likely think about dying more than I realize. I think that’s true of all of us.
Once, a friend was getting ready to leave my apartment and I couldn’t help myself and asked, “What are you afraid of?”. We talked for four more hours.
I remember saying that I’m afraid of running out of time to tell people what I want them to know, to tell them how special they are and how much I love them. My friend’s advice to simply do just that has stayed with me since. It has guided the openness with which I have tried to form new relationships and reconnect with people from way back when.
But over time and for a variety of reasons, we lose people. We lose opportunities. We lose the chance to participate in something that matters to us or to engage with people who matter to us. We are sad about these losses. We cry for them. We fear them. We do not know how we will move on without them. We do not know what there is without them.
These losses are painful to us because we feel robbed by time.
What would we have done if we’d had the time?
I’m beginning to understand that maybe it’s not about time at all. Maybe it’s about regretting doing X or not doing Y. Maybe it’s about living fully and presently to avoid the regrets that come from “running out of time”. We can instead can allow ourselves to take chances and explore possibilities, and we can forgive ourselves and others for our doings or lack thereof. This requires living mindfully with an awareness that we can choose to leave nothing unsaid or undone. We can choose to embrace time and use it to spur us along, saying and doing what we wish to say and do.
Thinking about this just yesterday, I made a choice that was hard for me. I asked someone I care about for something I wanted. I got an answer that I didn’t like. And I walked away (more honestly, retreated to the gym) without regret because I hadn’t waited for anything. I hadn’t pretended to be okay when I wasn’t. I’m not left wondering. It’s a strange, new, fragile feeling that I’m actively working to maintain as a positive force rather than slipping into doubt and self-disparagement.
The podcast left me wondering why we so infrequently talk about these ideas – that we are sad when we lose people because of the regrets we have and the forgiveness we haven’t granted, either to ourselves or to others. As Ostaseski emphasized, we need to understand death by seeing it as part of life. As part of living. My meditation teacher reminds us each class that part of the Zen practice of meditation is a preparation for death. After listening to the podcast, I put The Tibetan Book of the Dead on hold at the library; I should have it in about six weeks.
And in the meantime, I think I’ll keep that strange, new feeling of an end without regret.