As far as I can tell, I have always had a consciousness of mortality. As soon as I had the words available to me, I started asking awkward questions about death, and god, and eternity and all that stuff. As a three year old proto-existentialist, I was sent to Sunday School. If anyone had taken me seriously, I’d probably have signed up in earnest. I needed answers. What I got was fuzzy felt and things to colour in.
During my childhood I managed to make some peace with the idea that everything dies, the distance between stars, and what it would mean to go on forever. Sometimes these things kept me awake at night. I hit my teens determined to live as though any given day might be my last. It’s a philosophy that has, on the whole, stood me in good stead. That ‘might’ is important because it creates room for long term thinking, too. Along the way I have buried friends, and watched friends suddenly bury loved ones as well. Disease, and accident can come out of nowhere. We do not know how long we have, and we don’t know how long anyone else has, either.
That consciousness of death stops me from taking anything or anyone for granted. It hardwires gratitude into my awareness, because every day I get to the end of without having lost something or someone precious to me, is a bit of a win. I tell the people I love that I love them, because I won’t take the risk that no further opportunities to say it may arise.
Death has taught me that the things we regret not saying and not doing can really stay on and haunt you. It’s not the mistakes that hurt, it’s the failing to sort them out afterwards. The questions not asked, the words left unspoken.
Being afraid of death may make a person wary of acting, nervous about living. To be oblivious to death can be to make poor risk judgements, or to fail to really grasp the moment. A consciousness of death keeps life in perspective. It shows up the petty dramas for what they are, and it also throws a thwacking great spotlight onto the bits, the people, the things that really matter. It means not putting off until tomorrow anything that can be done today, in case the opportunity doesn’t come round again. It means squeezing as much out of living as is possible.
I don’t always get this right of course. Some of my priorities haven’t been too clever, and there are still things I regret not saying, and things I cannot fix. But on the whole, my consciousness of limited time has served me well. It colours every choice I make, everything I say yes to and everything I decline. I have an awareness that you can turn out to be saying ‘no’ forever if someone dies, and not know when you said it, that it would be such an absolute. I take my smaller decisions seriously as a consequence. Often, the little things are all any of us has, and they become the big things by dint of timing and context.
It’s not a dress rehearsal, this, so far as any of us know. We might be collecting points towards a shiny afterlife, but then again we might not. I prefer to live as though this is all I’m getting – it focuses the mind somewhat. I know there are some schools of thought that without a sense of afterlife and consequences, we will live irresponsibly and without virtue. I don’t find that to be the case, but instead feel that the desire for a life lived well is motivation enough to try and do the right things for the right reasons.