Let’s talk about death…
Not to focus on the fear of death or sensationalising death; we already do that plenty. According to a 2005 Pews Research Journalism Project report, over 40% of news headlines make references to death. Media broadcasts, doctor appointments, terrorist threat warnings, cemeteries, and our own bodies remind us of our mortality. Death evokes emotion and action, even if that action is only clicking a link or buying a newspaper. A dual fascination and aversion to death is natural, based on our drive for self-preservation.
Thoughts of death produce anxiety. There’s a line of study called Terror Management Theory that explores this in detail. When reminded of our mortality, we have a tendency to:
- be more prejudice against those with different belief systems;
- be more likely to believe in the afterlife and divine intervention;
- have a greater belief in our unique humanity as distinct from other animals;
- become more patriotic and buy domestic products; and
- hold a dislike for modern art that undermines perceptions of meaning (think most reality TV and pop music)
Talking about death is a conversation about meaning…
The levels of anxiety about death and the responses above will depend on how much meaning we find in our lives. One research project looked at When death thoughts lead to death fears and found that:
“The inevitability of death is not as threatening if people believe that their existence, though transient, is meaningful and serves a greater purpose.”
The death conversation is one that comes up more as we get older. When we are young, there is a sense of invincibility. We have forever to figure things out. We laugh in the face of death and get away with it. In the words of The Who, members of any particular “My Generation” say a collective “I hope I die before I get old”.
As we get older, the prospect of our inevitable demise becomes more real. We enter into what Carl Jung called the “noon of life”: when one has time, internal capacity, and relaxed ability to sift through things and develop a personalised sense of self in the world. We use lessons from the past to reflect on what has meaning for the present as we become increasingly conscious of our future.
A case study: Tuesday’s with Morrie
This meaning conversation is played out in the memoir Tuesday’s with Morrie. The book is written from the perspective of 37-year old author Mitch Albom who learned that his past college professor Morrie Schwartz was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Mitch is introduced as an unfulfilled yet successful sports columnist who goes through a radical change as a result of spending fourteen Tuesdays with his professor. Before entering into the conversation, Mitch’s perspective was that:
“I buried myself in my accomplishments, because with accomplishments, I believed I could control things, I could squeeze in every last piece of happiness before I got sick and died.”
Over the weeks and the chapters, Mitch and his professor tackle tough questions about death, fear, aging, greed, marriage, family, society, forgiveness, and a meaningful life. Death provides a backdrop to a conversation about life, in a narrative that demonstrates the power of meaning to diminish anxiety.
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they are busy doing things they think are important. This is because they are chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning in your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to the community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
Our own Tuesday’s with Morrie
I see that Mitch did not just have a conversation with Morrie. Mitch had a unique opportunity to have conversation with his future self; a future self that was the best that he could possibly be.
This had me thinking about how I might give myself a conversation with my future self. And not just any future self, but the best future self I can possibly imagine. What questions would I ask? What would I hold valuable? What would it be like to have my own “Tuesdays with Morrie”?
Uncertainty and a search for meaning are common topics in clients I work with, many who are aged near the “noon of life”. These are natural conversations, an expected stage in a person’s development journey. As I read through Tuesdays with Morrie, I found in many of the pages familiar topics of coaching conversations.
This had me thinking… what if I set aside time every Tuesday for about three months to follow the line of thought outlined in the book, where…
The first Tuesday we talk about the world
The first week is important to get clear about how we fundamentally see the world. How do I see the world? Is it a threatening place, or a loving place? Who do I connect with? Do I avoid suffering at all costs, or do I seek out meaning and allow any suffering to let me connect with others who are suffering? What do I see as the most important thing?
“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.”
The second Tuesday we talk about feeling sorry for yourself
The second week, we reconcile self-pity. Pain and suffering in life is inevitable. Some experience more than others, and each person’s experience is their own. What do I do with my thoughts of self-pity? Do I hold on to them, or do I acknowledge them and let them go? Does my self-pity hold me back from thinking about others? Do I allow my focus on others to push aside my thoughts of myself?
“A little self-pity in the morning, and then I concentrate on the good things in life.”
The third Tuesday we talk about regret
The third week, we let go of regret. Regret is judgement of ourselves for something we should have done or should not have done. How long do I hold onto that judgement? What can I learn from the feedback I am giving myself? What prevents me from treating it as a learning opportunity, apply the learning, and move on?
“We are so wrapped up in the little things, we don’t get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying: Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?”
The fourth Tuesday we talk about death
The fourth week, we jump to the end and read the last chapter – daily. How do we give ourselves permission to have the conversation about death now? Morrie shared a practice about imagining a little bird on your shoulder that every day asks the questions: Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?
“Everyone knows they are going to die, but no one believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.”
“To know you are going to die, and be prepared for it at any time. That’s better. That way you can actually be more involved in your life while living.”
“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”
The fifth Tuesday we talk about family
The fifth week we talk about those around us who we love and give us love, related or otherwise. Everyone has different situations for related family, but that does not mean we cannot make our family with what we have. What am I doing to invest in my family? Am I creating spiritual security? Do I surround myself with people I can watch out for and in return do they watch out for me?
“Family is about knowing someone is watching out for you.”
The sixth Tuesday we talk about emotions
The sixth week, we get into our feelings. What do I do with my emotions? Do I hold onto my emotions and treat my emotions as reality? Do I put up protective defences to avoid getting hurt by them? Or do I feel the emotions, allow the feedback to do its work, and let them go?
“Learn to detach. Don’t cling to things, because everything is impermanent. You let the experience penetrate you fully. That is how you are able to leave it. Detachment does not mean you don’t let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you completely. That’s how you are able to leave it.”
The seventh Tuesday we talk about the fear of aging
The seventh week we reconcile growing older to help us live in the moment. How do I feel about aging? Do I see it as decay, something to be ashamed of? Or do I see it as growth, something to be proud of? Do I accept who I am now? What does this mean about accepting who I was then?
“Wishing we were younger reflects unsatisfied and unfulfilled lives. Lives that have not found meaning. If you have found meaning in your life, you do not want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more. You can’t wait until the future.”
The eighth Tuesday we talk about Money
The eighth week we gain perspective on how we define and talk about wealth. What I value is where I focus my time and energy. Where do I place my value and spend my time? What gives me satisfaction? Am I, as Morrie notes, embracing material things and expecting a hug back? Where can I get the kind of return on investment that has meaning?
“Do the kinds of things that come from the heart. When you do, you won’t be dissatisfied, you won’t be envious, you won’t be longing for someone else’s things. On the contrary, you will be overwhelmed with what comes back.”
The ninth Tuesday we talk about how love goes on
The ninth week we consider our legacy. What will continue after I have gone? Am I investing in things or people? Am I running towards or away from something, or am I present in the moment with the people I care about?
“People have not found meaning in their lives, so they are running all the time looking for it. Once you start running, it is hard to slow yourself down.”
The tenth Tuesday we talk about marriage
The tenth week we focus on our long-term relationship. Morrie highlighted how in marriage you get tested. “You find out who you are, who the other person is, and how you accommodate or you don’t.” For those who are married or in a relationship, questions to ask include: Do I respect the other person? Do I know how to compromise? Can we talk openly about what goes on between us? Do we have a common set of values?
“Love each other or perish.”
The eleventh Tuesday we talk about our culture
The eleventh week we look at the external situation in which we find ourselves and whether we are a victim to it or can control it. Culture is society’s protective mechanism. It is a response to threat: threat of boredom, threat of no identity, threat of ignorance, threat of pain. Am I falling into the culture that is around me? Or am I creating the culture I want for myself? What do I have control over? What do I not control, but can influence? Am I clear on the difference?
“The big things – how we think, what we value – those you must choose yourself. You can’t let anyone – or any society – determine those for you.”
“Every society has its own problems. The way to do it isn’t to run away. You have to work at creating your own culture.”
The twelfth Tuesday we talk about forgiveness
The twelfth week, we give ourselves and others grace. Forgiveness is a gift given for a perceived offence, be it one that we have committed or that others have committed to us. What am I holding on to? Pride? Vanity? Fear? Do I need to forgive myself for things I did? For things I didn’t do? To the same extent I forgive myself, do I need to forgive others?
“Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t wait.”
The thirteenth Tuesday we talk about the perfect day
After reconciling for twelve weeks, in the thirteenth week we define the best that it could be. Describe your perfect day. Who are you with? What are you doing? What are you feeling? What are you thinking? What are three key aspects that make it special? How might you create parts of this perfect day in your everyday now?
“As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You love on – in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you are here.”
The fourteenth Tuesday we say goodbye
This is a challenging one. If you have gone through the weeks, you might have come to love your future self. If you were to write a letter to your future self, thanking him or her for the wisdom and friendship they have given you, what would you say? What would you be grateful for? That letter can become a roadmap for the next few years or decades of your life. Further, learning to say goodbye now can provide practice so it is easier in the future.
“That’s what we are all looking for. A certain peace with the idea of dying. If we know, in the end, that we can ultimately have that peace with dying then we can finally do the really hard thing – make peace with the living.”
Join the journey
Death is an uncomfortable topic for many. Yet research and Morrie show that death loses its sting for people who are able to find real meaning and purpose. Author Mitch Albom found this meaning and purpose through a teacher and the questions above.
As we head into a New Year (or any new time period, depending on when you are reading this), you are welcome to join me in your own Tuesdays with Morrie. Except instead of Morrie, consider spending the time with your future self – your more mature and wiser self who has learned about what is important in life, who wants to pass that wisdom on to you out of compassion and love.
The book is an easy read and a good companion on the journey. Have the conversation now; relaxed, with coffee or tea, a wine or a beer, over a series of weeks. Give yourself the space to rest in the one topic each week. If you have a wife, husband, or other significant other, perhaps invite them into the conversation.
If it helps you to share with others, I invite you to return each week and share as you feel appropriate in the comments below. If there are others you feel could benefit from a fourteen week conversation with their future self, you are welcome to pass this post on through the various social links below.