Living the Biggest Question of Them All
“It is only in the face of death that man’s real self is born.” – Augustine
“At every moment you choose (and thus create or reinforce) yourself. But do you really choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one—which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy out of curiosity or wonder or greed or comfort or need for security, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life—is your true ‘I’.” ( – Dag Hammarskjöld, “Markings,” pg. 10)
“In the last analysis, it is our conception of death which decides our answers to all of the questions life puts to us.” ( – Dag Hammarskjöld, “Markings,” pg. 138.)
“Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage for that which he really knows.” – Nietzsche
“Far more crucial than what we know or do not know is what we do not want to know.” – Eric Hoffer
“People who are afraid of living are also especially frightened of death.” – Médard Boss
We are the choices we make.
We become the choices we make. It’s not primarily our thoughts that make us who we are, because for many of what we think and what we do are not congruent or related; it’s our choices, our behaviors that most define us and makes us who we are.
Our truest self is formed in relation to the big questions in life—not just how honestly we choose to formulate and pose these questions, but how honestly and deeply we choose to attempt to answer these questions with our life and in our daily actions, how courageously we choose to live these big questions while we are trying to grow and live our way into an answer and being capable of receiving and sustaining some semblance of a real answer.
If we manage to do all of this with integrity (integration), honesty, and courage—meaning there’s no great gulf or dissonance between our thinking and doing, our thinking and actual life practice—then we will arrive at a very valid and authentic version of our deepest and truest self.
But if we fail to ask the questions and we live our lives asleep or as if we’re dreaming—if we live discursively and in the shallows of life, playing hide and seek with death and with thoughts and an awareness of our own mortality, avoiding cemeteries, eschewing thoughts of the origin and fate of the universe, and the fate of those we love and their fragility and mortality—as well as our own—then we will pass our life like in a dream and sleepwalk through our lives and never get a sense of who we really are or could be or should have been.
“The tranquility and contentment of a well-born spirit and the resolution and assurance of a well-ordered soul should never be attributed to a person until he has been seen to play the last, and beyond a doubt the hardest, act of this play. In everything else there may be sham: fine reasonings of philosophy may be mere posturing in us; our trials by not testing us all the way to the quick and pressing us all the way to our last limits, may give us a chance to keep our face and stay falsely composed and proud. But in our last scene, between death and ourselves, there is no more pretending, no more posturing. We must talk plainly, show what is good and clean at the bottom of the pot, if anything—
‘At last true words surge up from deep within our breast,
The mask is snatched away, reality is left.’—Lucretius
“That is why all the other actions of our life must be tried and tested by this act. It is the penultimate and master day, the day that is the judge of all others. ‘It is the day,’ says Seneca, ‘that must judge all my past years.’ And as Cicero says, ‘to philosophize is nothing else but to prepare for death.’ I leave it to death to test the fruit of all of my studies and learning. We shall see then, at that moment, whether my reasonings have come from my mouth or from my heart.”
(Montaigne, “The Complete Essays of Montaigne,” pg. 55.)
Or if we do try to ask and ponder the big questions, but we do so in a very timid or frightened or dishonest or self-deceptive way, clutching for whatever answer or convention seems to hold the promise of alleviating our anxiety, quelling or soothing or staving off our growing uneasiness and panic, we will also arrive at a very illegitimate version of our self—a false authentic self—not the truly authentic self arrived at by “living the questions” openly and honestly and courageously, in fear and trembling, but the falsely or inauthentic authentic self arrived at by our avoidance, by our need for answers that settle us and relieve our stress and make us feel good and in control.
“The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant into their presences a new organ of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can destroy the egoism now completely crystallized in them.” – G. I. Gurdjieff
The end will come no matter what. No matter what. It cannot be avoided. We each owe a death. There’s no getting out of playing that scene, unless we’re completely obliterated in the middle of the night by some enormous piece of space junk while we sleep. Loss is the long and the short lesson in life. Everything burns, everyone dies, everything is on its way to somewhere else. The cells that make us up and make up those we love and cling to are just temporary assemblages of borrowed molecules—combinations of atoms and empty space. Death alone is certain. It is unavoidable, inescapable. Everyone dies. Ourselves included. Beginning with the end—with that end—deeply in mind is the only way of living that makes sense and that can actually help awaken us and raise our level of self-awareness and self-honesty (help us cut through our own crap and our smaller self’s avoidant-escapist life/reality-denying tendencies) as well as raise our level of differentiation or “being.”
The point of all of this is simple: we don’t need to acquire any more knowledge. We just need to become more honest and courageous in regards to what we already know and start putting it into practice and living it. Because unless we translate into action and live/exhibit/practice what we “know,” we’re just deluding ourselves—and others—we’re being a fraud, a genuine fake, a false self. We really don’t know what we think we know and what we talk about. The only real knowledge is knowledge which acts, which shows up in our behavior: that’s where we show what we truly are and what we really know. We can say that we’re spiritual and talk about living courageously and living and loving as if we’re dying or as if we’re running a two-minute drill with our lives, but the proof is in our behaviors. When the moment to act and live a bit more dangerously, with more force and clarity, with more intensity and courage and resilience comes, do we just talk about it, or do we heroically and lovingly stretch ourselves taut—or let ourselves be stretched taut—across some great new experience or unknown or intense situation that promises us something real and possibly expansive and transformational? (—if we can manage to hold onto ourselves and stay in the heat of the moment and stay the course and not implode and run) Are we just talkers and self-deluders forever scheming and pretending and talking about becoming braver and running away less from what frightens us but still sitting around on our “buts”; or are we actually doers and putting the wheels in motion to actually do and live what we claim to know and take the appropriate leap and lessen the gulf or dissonance between what we think and what we do.
Get busy loving or get busy dying. That’s the choice we each have every day. Waste another day of life by living without love and courage and openness and honesty and not facing what frightens us—especially in ourselves. Or open our heart, our mind, look honestly at ourselves, really see ourselves as we are, without blinders, favoritism, softeners, and sit down and write and have that long honest heartfelt tender conversation with ourselves on paper so that we can see our own thoughts and words staring back at us.
So many people say that they know life is short, that they know that everyone including themselves dies, et cetera et cetera, yadda yadda yadda, but then they proceed to refute that so-called knowledge at every turn by how they live and especially by how they show up to the intense moments and interactions in their life. They live and love as if life goes on forever, as if tomorrow has been promised and assured them—as if many tomorrows, in fact, have been promised them. And so what do they really know? Nothing really of worth; what they know is how to bullshit themselves and pretend to be other than what they are, because what little they are is uninspiring and banal, inwardly empty and barren and flat-souled. And so they live as if they have never been born, because in truth, they haven’t yet be born and become who they authentically are or are supposed to be.
And living life like a two-minute drill is not about living irresponsibly, damn the consequences. It’s about living with greater clarity, focus, intensity, enthusiasm, passion, and taking a few more (wise and loving) risks, opening the heart more and self-protecting and avoiding the full flow of life less. It’s about living as you will have wished you would have lived and loved more often when you get the heart attack or hear the diagnosis cancer. It’s about having—and maintaining—perspective—holding onto our center, our big mind or overview, keeping the end in mind, keeping our eye on the prize, not getting hijacked by our amygdala or reptilian brain and our fears and insecurities and anxieties. It’s about being able to take the leap when the opportunity presents itself, and not just talk about it and then backing away from the edge of the plane when it’s our turn to psychologically and emotionally skydive into the unknown, to feel the fear and do it anyway.
“Thank You, My Fate” – Anna Swir
Great humility fills me,
great purity fills me,
I make love with my dear
as if I made love dying
as if I made love praying,
over my arms and his arms.
I don’t know whether this is joy
or sadness, I don’t understand
what I feel, I’m crying,
I’m crying, it’s humility
as if I were dead,
gratitude, I thank you, my fate,
I’m unworthy, how beautiful
This is living and loving as if one’s dying. This is what we’re all capable of, and what so many of us when we get the terminal diagnosis will wish we had done more often in our prime while we still had time.
(And in truth, we’ve all already received the terminal diagnosis if but we would drop our denial and realize it. We’ve already each received the terminal diagnosis. And so much of personal growth is about looking at the myriad of ways in which we do not allow this knowledge to reach critical mass in us now while there’s still time.)
If a person claims to know a lot about life and death, living and loving, and shows up to a situation with another person who also claims also to be at a similar place in life psychologically, spiritually, but then one of the two lapses into pettiness, superficiality, vanity, avoidance of living the questions, backslides out of fear into a “life goes on forever” mentality and way of thinking, then doesn’t that shows that that person really doesn’t know that life is short and insecure? Doesn’t that mean that this person is essentially an imposter, a pretender, a genuine fake, a fraud, a poser? (Tough words, yes, to be certain; but why use softeners and delude ourselves about it? Life is too short.)
We don’t “own” something—we don’t own a particular trait or self-capacity—until we can exhibit it or perform it under fire, under pressure, in times of great stress and duress; unless we can take the leap from talking about it to actually doing it and living it. Then we actually know it. Difficulty—being stress-tested—shows us what we are—it shows us who we are, in the raw, free of all of our finery and pretensions and errant thoughts and fine but delusive stories about our self. And this self-knowledge is real self-knowledge. It’s the real stuff. And it’s the type or degree of self-knowledge that most of us want no part of because of how difficult (unsettling? eviscerating?) it is to stomach, how much it wounds our pride, vanity, ego; how bad it makes us feel, how inadequate, how out of control, insecure, undone it leaves us. It’s not comfortable stuff. It’s highly unsettling and emotionally charged and emotionally taxing and anxiety-provoking stuff, which is why so many people shy away from it. But they do at the cost of wasting their lives in the meantime, in living as though asleep or at best half alive. The end will come no matter what. The question is whether we will get a diagnosis and thus get the opportunity to actually run a two-minute or six-month drill with our life and thus get to live and apply all of the new wisdom and insights and fearlessness that we have learned now that the scales of self-deception and Maya have fallen away (or been forcibly removed) from our eyes; or whether the end will come so suddenly and without any wiggle room or hope of reprieve that we get no time to make any changes to our life—the blood vessel pops, the heart stops, the car or plane crashes, and we’re gone. Our one little life is over. No second chance, no reprieve, no great awakening that we can live and share and pass onto to others, no time to get down anymore to the heart of the matter and actually live that way, only perhaps an instance in which to try and die that way.
Unbridled narcissism is the principal precursor of psychospiritual illness.
The healthy spiritual life consists of progressively growing out of narcissism. The failure to grow out of narcissism, although extremely common, is also extremely destructive.
The prospect of our death and the process of our dying physically can be one of the greatest stimuli to such healthy growth. They may even be the greatest such stimulus. When psychiatrists talk about injuries to pride, we call them narcissistic injuries. And on any scale of narcissistic injuries, death is the ultimate. We suffer little narcissistic injuries all the time; as a result of those narcissistic injuries, we either become embittered and avoidant or we become more courageous and open and grow. But death is the big one. Nothing threatens our narcissistic attachment to ourselves and our self-conceit more than our impending obliteration.
It is utterly natural that we should fear death and everything that begins to become a reminder of death.
There are two ways to deal with that fear: the common way and the smart way.
The common way is to put it out of our mind, limit our awareness of it, try not to think about it.
The smart way is to face death as early as possible. In doing so, we can realize something really simple; that is, insofar as we can overcome our narcissism we can diminish our fear of death.
It is not an easy journey, but what a worthwhile journey it is. Because the further we proceed in diminishing our narcissism and self-centeredness and sense of self-importance, the more we discover ourselves becoming not only less fearful of death but also less fearful of life. And this is the basis for learning to become more loving. No longer burdened by the need to constantly protect and defend ourselves, we are able to lift our eyes off ourselves and truly recognize others. We begin to experience a sustained, underlying sense of happiness that we have never experienced before.
Again and again all of the great religions tell us that the path away from narcissism and our smaller self is the path toward meaning in life. And this is their central message: Learn how to die. Buddhists and Hindus speak of this in terms of the necessity for self-detachment; indeed, for them even the notion of the self is an illusion. Jesus spoke of it in similar terms: “Whosoever will save his life”—that is, whosoever will hold onto his narcissism and smaller self—”shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”
(M. Scott Peck, in “The Road Less Traveled and Beyond“)
You are frightened of death because you have postponed it. We have separated living from dying; and in the interval between living and dying is fear. Living is our daily torture, daily insult, sorrow and confusion, escape and distraction, with the occasional brief opening of a window over enchanted seas. This is what we call living. And we are afraid to die, which is to end this misery. We would rather cling to the known than face the unknown—the known being our house, our furniture, our family, our masks, our false self, our smaller self, our work, our knowledge and little certainties, our fame, our loneliness, our gods—that little empty parasitic thing that moves around incessantly within its own limited pattern of embittered existence.
We think that living is always in the present and that dying is something that awaits us at a distant time. But we have never even questioned whether this battle of everyday life is living at all. We want proof of the survival of the soul, but we never ask how to live—how to live with delight, with enchantment, with beauty, with courage, with grace every day. We have accepted life as it is with all its agony and despair and have gotten used to it, and think of death as something to be carefully avoided. But death is extraordinarily like life when we know how to live. You cannot live without dying. You cannot live if you do not die psychologically to your self—to your smaller frightened conditioned self—every minute. This is not an intellectual paradox. To live completely, wholly, every day as if it were a new loveliness, there must be dying to everything small and timid within us, otherwise you live mechanically, escapistly, and an escapist mechanical mind can never know what love is or what freedom is.
Freedom from the known is death; learn how to die to yourself and then you are living.
(J. Krishnamurti, abridged from “Meeting Life“)