A heartbeat. The exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen. Firing neurons. These are a few of the things that sustain human life. Being alive requires little of us. We can merely eat, sleep, and exist. Perhaps we work, earning enough money to get by, keeping ourselves busy until, finally, a handful of decades later, we die.
But there’s a big difference between that and truly being alive.
Lots of motivational speakers talk about what makes life worth living, almost to the point of cliché. They mention things like experiences, relationships, and the pursuit of dreams, but while these things are wonderful, they are the result of the journey from life to living, not the cause—few know the true secret to going from one to the other.
There is only one concept that holds the power to bring you to life.
It might surprise you to learn that the key to life lies in death, but to begin unpacking this idea, ask yourself one question.
What motivates you?
At first, things like love, success, comfort, and security might come to mind, but we’re going to go deeper. Why is so important that we attain these things now, rather than later? Why do we so urgently seek them out?
The simple answer is that all of these things have a deadline. Time is running out, and believe it or not, that’s a good thing.
William Ervine, professor of philosophy at Wright State University, embraces Stoicism, an ancient school of philosophy that arose in Greece around the 3rd century B.C. In Dr. Ervine’s worldview, we can begin to understand how death benefits us.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” Ervine says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful.”
But not all of us see death as Ervine does. For many, death is a terrifying void. It is a door that leads down a darkened hallway, from which no one ever returns. It is the great unknown, and the fact that, one day, we will no longer exist calls into question the meaning of all we say and do throughout our lives.
And so many of us develop coping mechanisms. When the fingers of death brush lightly at our lives—when someone we care about sickens, when we pass by a cemetery, or when the news brings us an account of lives lost—we push thoughts of death away. We run. We seek distraction and comfort.
Sometimes, this motivates us. A relative dies of a heart attack, and we start eating our vegetables. We pass the cemetery, and promise ourselves that we’ll treat our spouse better. News of an attack flickers across our television screens in the small hours of the morning, and we give to a charity in the evening.
But fear is a fickle thing. It spikes, dwells for a moment, and then recedes like the tide. And when that tide goes out, it pulls with it our newfound motivation, burying it beneath the waves. Fear is not the path from life to living. It is the path to bad choices and destructive habits.
If you want to know the big difference between living and being truly alive, it is this: you must utterly embrace the reality of mortality. You must be willing to stare down that dark hallway and be content not to know what lies at the end, and yet also allow your knowledge of the coming end to fuel your desire to live your life to the fullest.
To do this, you must free yourself from the negative psychological reactions you might have toward death, and replace these reactions with positive ones. To begin, you must stop fighting death. Recognize that it is going to happen, and accept the fact that you don’t know what comes afterward.
This is the state that many terminally ill patients find themselves in, and their resultant sense of calm puzzles those around them. They’ve been forced to think about death constantly, to confront it as they never have before. Those who deliberately choose to accept their impending deaths find a peace, and even a euphoric sense of life, that is unmatched. You can do the same by forcing yourself to confront thoughts of your own death, accepting them, and moving on.
When U.K. rock guitarist, Wilko Johnson, was diagnosed with stomach cancer and given 9 months to live, he told BBC that “We walked out and I felt an elation of spirit. You're walking along and suddenly you're vividly alive. You're looking at the trees and the sky and everything and it's just 'whoah!'. I am actually a miserable person. I've spent most of my life moping in depressions and things, but this has all lifted… The things that used to bring me down, or worry me, or annoy me, they don't matter anymore - and that's when you sit thinking 'Wow, why didn't I work this out before? Why didn't I work out before that it's just the moment you're in that matters?’”
Being passively aware of death is a source of anxiety and fear. Facing it, however, brings about a new understanding of life.
This is absolutely transformational. If you can spend a few moments each day remind yourself of your own mortality, you’ll cross the threshold between life and living in a way few others have. You’ll find yourself with a new ability to live not in the past or the future, but in the present, where life actually happens. You’ll develop a greater sense of gratitude for the parts of your life you may have been taking for granted. You’ll find depths of empathy you never know you had, for the human beings all around you who are in the same boat as you.
What’s more, those things that worried you in the past—things like social acceptance, material gain, and conforming to cultural norms—won’t seem like such a big deal anymore. When you are simultaneously free yourself from death and embrace it, you’ll find yourself able to live an authentic life.
That’s when you know you’re alive.E.M. Forster once wrote that “Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.” The fragility of life is not a weakness, but a strength. Make that strength yours by courageously facing, and embracing, death so that you might truly live for the very first time.