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The Unmanageable Proximity of Death
"We don’t live longer when we try not to die, we live longer when we’re too busy livin."
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This afternoon, I got a text from my cousin Jimmy:
The deceased was our mutual cousin. We are part of a large family spread out over a pretty broad geographical area, and he was much younger than me. When his father was a much younger man, though, and I was still a kid, we’d hang out together whenever he was in town. From probably age 10 to age 12, he was kind of like the big brother I never had. Then he got married, I went off to college, and eventually started my own family several hundred miles away. As often happens in situations like these, we lost contact, except for the occasional online interaction, and I never really got a chance to know his kids.
It’s always tragic whenever you hear about a young person dying, especially from something like this. No parent should have to bury their child. When it’s a relative, even one you don’t know well, it hits close to home. It’s almost as though death passes by in a crowd, not close enough to touch you, but near enough to feel the cold shiver up your spin.
And for heaven’s sake, 26? I have a daughter that age. I can only imagine.
Death seems to have been a theme in my extended family, of late. I’m fairly isolated from my East Coast tribe out here in the West, but I’ve gotten news of the deaths of an aunt and two uncles in the past couple of months. Two on my mom’s side, one on my dad’s. I guess maybe it’s just my age. Your mid-forties is when these things begin to happen, parts of one generation passing on just a little too soon, as the next begins to realize that even mid-life is now in the rear-view.
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I’m not sure why, and don’t want to read too much into it, but the theme that death is never far away and worth contemplating seems to be a reoccurring pattern in my life right now. It forces me to take stock and gain some perspective.
This morning, before I got the news about my cousin, before I started thinking about any of this, I happened across two stories from strangers that were about this very thing.
The first was from a guy named Mike Higgins, who popped up for the first time on the “For You” tab of my Twitter algorithm.
His story immediately got my attention.
“4 words I never thought I would say at the age of 35,” he writes. “‘I had a stroke.’ Yes. You read that correctly. On Thursday, Nov 16th, 2023 at 7:45am, I had a stroke in my home. At the age of 35. To say it was scary was an understatement. It was the most anxious, terrifying, helpless feeling of my life. My wife and oldest son watched in fear and worry as I stood there in front of them. I cannot ever unsee the look on their faces.”
He describes the entire ordeal in a way I’ve never seen articulated before. It offered a sobering first-person look at the experience.
Then, he offers perspective:
“My hope is that you get done reading this and hug your loved ones a little tighter. Don't sweat the small stuff. Love in every moment. Be present in all moments. Have gratitude for the breath you just had, the words you just spoke, and the steps you just took.”
Fair enough, for an early morning read when the coffee is just kicking in. But then, shortly after, I opened up Substack, and started reading new notes from the people I follow.
Right at the top was a post from, which read:
There’s a concept called near-death higher state of consciousness
It’s one of the most powerful states you’ll ever experience.
And I’ve lived it multiple times — a near-miss with cancer, and being the victim of a gang knife attack at 16.
It’s best shown through author George Saunders’s near-fatal accident.
He was on a commercial flight reading a Vanity Fair magazine.
Suddenly he hears a loud bang.
The flight he was on hit a flock of geese.
Black smoke pours out of the engines, and the cabin lights flicker non-stop. Eventually the plane lands safely back at the runway.
A bizarre situation happened after he arrived home safely.
For the next 3-4 days the world had never looked more beautiful.
He couldn’t believe he got to come back and try again.
The world looked amazing because he finally knew that one day it would end for him.
Takeaway: The secret to life is to live like this all the time.
This advice has been offered by so many people so many times, it’s almost impossibly cliché. I doubt anyone reading this right now hasn’t heard at least a hundred versions of this same kind of story.
But the problem is: how do you actually live by it?
You’ve got responsibilities. Bills to pay. Meals to make, errands to run, doctor visits to go to, kids to take to school, deadlines to meet, and taxes to file.
Nobody can actually live like it’s their last day on earth every day.
They’d never get anything done.
You’d never buy groceries, or take the dog to the groomers, or get your oil changed, or check the mail. None of that stuff would really matter if you were just squeezing every last drop out of life.
The mundane tasks could wait until you were gone.
But if you think about it, this is the paradox we live with, every day. Any day really could be your last. It’s the reason why not knowing the day we’re going to die is one of the greatest blessings we have. We don’t want to know. It would ruin everything. We would obsessively calculate the days and the hours, we’d insist that other people drop what they’re doing to spend time with us, because, after all, we’ve only got X number of days left on this planet! We’d become miserable. Unbearable. Impossible. We would very likely destroy any chance at a positive legacy. By the time we finally shuffled off our mortal coil, everyone would be good and ready for us to go.
The thing is, there’s no way to sustain the almost preternatural clarity that comes from a brush with death. It’s the kind of experience that makes us hungry to see things and love people in their purest forms, stripped of all the quotidian banalities, without constantly succumbing to the “maybe laters,” or getting caught up in the pressing obligations of the now.
But like being madly in love, unable to eat or sleep or think of anything but the face of our beloved, their smell, their eyes, their embrace, their kiss…life in such an enchanted, intoxicated state is unsustainable.
I once interviewed a man who was dying of cancer. He had an upbeat attitude, a charitable heart, and an incredible joy about him that was almost impossible for me to comprehend, considering his prognosis.
I wanted to know what made him tick.
As it turned out, he was resigned to his fate, prepared, by means of his Catholic faith, to face death, and offer all of his sufferings for his loved ones, especially his kids. He was filled with purpose, and driven by a determination to die well.
But then, miraculously, he recovered. The cancer went into remission. And on my subsequent interactions with him, he seemed more and more lost. Disappointed, even. His infectious joy was replaced, it seemed, by an uncomfortable incredulity that everything he had braced himself to accept with peaceful resignation was now, without him even asking for it, a chalice that had passed.
He had re-oriented his entire frame to accept and embrace the inevitable, but the inevitable never came.
We do not know how these things will affect us when it’s our turn to face them. We excitedly share the advice of those who have had brushes with death, renewing our commitments to live life to the fullest.
Carpe diem! we think. Never forget.
But we must forget.
Sadly, we must still go to do our paperwork at the DMV. It’s far more enjoyable to sit down and enjoy a movie or a show or an afternoon of football without subtracting the hours from the scant total we have left remaining like some eschatological accountant. We can’t keep our children home from school each day, or our spouses home from work, or our friends and families from their obligations, just so we can spend each day with them as though it were our last. Every meal can’t be treated as the final meal we will ever get to eat.
I’ve always believed that the science of satisfaction is about learning when, and how, to get a handle on the challenges we face in life. When you can design your own weather, blow in the breeze. When you’re stuck in the storm, pray for luck and make the best of it. We all have scars, we’ll get more. So rather than struggle against time and waste it, let’s dance with time and redeem it, because we don’t live longer when we try not to die, we live longer when we’re too busy livin.
As I’ve navigated the weather in my own life, getting relative with the inevitable has been a key to my success.
Relatively, we are livin. Life is our résumé. It is our story to tell, and the choices we make write the chapters. Can we live in a way where we look forward to looking back?
Inevitably, we are going to die. Our eulogy, our story, will be told by others and forever introduce us when we are gone.
The Soul Objective. Begin with the end in mind.
What’s your story?
“Inevitably, we are going to die.”
Somehow, we have to find a way to live with that.