Thinking about our mortality can free us from tunnel vision.
I don’t like thinking about death, particularly my own or that of my loved ones. Anytime my mind wanders there it retreats almost reflexively, the way my hand jerks back from a hot burner when it comes too close.
This is true for most of us. Death is ever-present, one of the few certainties that all human lives share, yet in our culture we tend to run from it. In some ways we’re like children with our eyes covered in a game of hide-and-seek — certain that if we can’t see death, it can’t see us.
Of course, it can and will. And while averting our attention away from death might feel comforting, it’s almost certainly a false comfort. In fact, according to Tonic, ignoring the reality of death might actually have the reverse effect, making us less happy in our daily lives:
But, like most things we avoid, our culturally-mandated avoidance of thinking about death might not be helping us. In fact, it might be hurting us. It’s not that you have a higher fatality rate if you don’t think about death, it’s just that thinking about death might, ironically, make you happier. A University of Kentucky study with found that “thinking about death fosters an orientation toward emotionally pleasant stimuli.” The study, conducted by researchers C. Nathan DeWall and Roy F. Baumeister, found that “this occurs immediately and outside of awareness, a fact that may contribute to people’s well-documented failure to predict how quickly they will recover from upsetting events. We have shown that the common response to contemplating death is a nonconscious orientation toward happy thoughts.”
This isn’t exactly news to Christians. While the article at Tonic focuses mainly on Buddhist death meditations, Christians have been meditating on death for centuries, since Christ’s death on the cross.
On Ash Wednesday, when we prepare to enter the 40 days of Lent in preparation to celebrate Easter, the priest marks the heads of the faithful with ashes and reminds us that “you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” This is just one aspect of the tradition of memento mori, the Christian practice of reflecting on our mortality as a way to remind us of the eternal life to come.
This is particularly important because it helps cultivate detachment from earthly pleasures, trials, and tribulations by refocusing our attention on the eternal. During Lent, focusing on our death allows us to focus on what death will ultimately bring — the next life, the eternal life of the soul. To that end we work to free ourselves from attachment to sin and to build virtue instead.
I don’t know about y’all, but I always feel better during Lent — particularly when I persevere in what I’ve given up and maintain discipline in going to confession and the stations of the cross. It’s hard, sure, and not very fun, but I feel happier. The world looks brighter and I enjoy the simple pleasures in life — my children’s laughter, my daily chores, the sunshine, exercise — far more than I do when I’m trying to get through the day to enjoy a Netflix binge or a glass of wine.
I suspect that meditating on death, no matter your religious tradition, brings happiness simply because it reminds you of the beauty of your life, and what truly matters. If you would spend the last day of your life laughing and playing with your children, why wouldn’t you spend this day doing that instead of mindlessly scrolling the internet? Thinking about our death is a way of freeing us from tunnel vision and restoring the big-picture vision, where we can focus on the things that really matter, that truly bring us health and happiness.
So if you tend to shy away from thinking about death too, try to think about it a little today. Not in a macabre way … just in the kind of way that helps you remember what matters most in your life. If you start to make a habit of it, you may just find your are living every day with a lot more purpose and passion.
Who smiles like this near the moment of death?