Have you ever heard someone speak with such profound clarity you forget to breathe? This happened recently when I came across a TedTalk that hit me in the gut—a presentation so insightful I can’t get it out of my head. The speaker was BJ Miller, director of a place called Zen Hospice, and as he walked on the stage, his grace and creditability were unequivocally established. (Watch the video and you’ll know what I mean.) With gentle strength, Mr. Miller proceeded to offer listeners a viewpoint containing the power to change everything.
I share with you a sampling of his thoughts:
“We can’t solve for death…”
Take a moment to ingest that statement and let the truth of it sink deep into your marrow: death is inevitable, all the time, no matter what. There is no more chance of escaping death than there is of escaping our body’s preordained requirements for food, water, air, shelter. Death has always been, and will always be, among us. Forever. So why persist in ignoring our shared truth--do we think that by refusing to acknowledge death, it won’t happen? As if turning a blind eye will somehow make it go away and leave us all alone? Hardly.
“Learn to live well not in spite of death, but because of it.”
Imagine if we could talk about death, explore it’s meaning, fully acknowledge it’s coming, and then proceed to live lives of joy and meaning because we know, really and truly and deeply know, our time is limited. Would that change things? What if death were present in the fabric of our daily conversations; would it remind us of our most finite resource, human hours?
“As we near death, it makes sense to seek moments that reward us just for being.”
And not only as we near death, but also every single day that we’re alive, doesn’t it make sense to seek moments that reward us for being wholly in the moment? Imagine: if death were part of our ongoing dialogue, we might hear a bird sing and remember that we are only guaranteed this precise moment, so we pause and enjoy the music. We might see the sun setting and remember that one day it will set without us, or feel the breeze against our skin and realize we are lucky to experience its touch in this moment. It is when we forget (or willfully ignore) death, that we lose much of our ability to experience each day as though it might be our last. What would happen if we ushered in thoughts of death ‘with warmth, rather than repugnance’, as a way to realize moments of deep reward, simply for being alive?
“Loss is one thing, but regret quite another.”
I believe in my bones we exponentially increase the potential for regret by refusing to acknowledge, accept, and talk about the fact of death. Nothing is gained by silence; in fact denial of death can be actively dangerous because it leads us to actions and outcomes we never intended. Regardless of whether it’s our own death, or the death of a loved one, we must share our hearts, speak our thoughts, and give voice to our hopes, fears, desires—anything less is an invitation for regret. And how much easier, more natural, and more comfortable would that process be if conversations about death were already a tradition?
Promoting early (and often) conversations about death has recently been referred to as “the gentlest revolution imaginable”, and I think the sentiment is beautifully apt. Life and death both deserve our full attention, and gentleness is an excellent approach. In this case, as in every other, change begins with a single person deciding to take action, then another coming alongside and joining in. One person who is willing to talk about aging and death becomes two people, becomes four, becomes ten, becomes a revolution.
The real question is: who will be that person? Me? You?