Monday, August 20, 2012

Embracing Our Mortality

No one can say confidently that he will still be living tomorrow. --Euripides 

I have faced “certain death” on three occasions. Each time I was “dramatically changed” … until the drama of the event started receding into the past. Check that: it didn’t “recede,” as this would imply I was a passive bystander in the process. No, I consciously repressed it, buried it, and then hypnotized myself into a state of forgetfulness as to where it was buried. I preferred being cocooned and protected from the terror to being drastically changed in heart and mind.
It was an all too easy process for me: I can’t function normally if I am constantly facing and embracing death. Note the rationalization, “I have children to rear, bills to pay,” and the depersonalization, “death,” rather than “my death.”
When these events refuse to stay buried and erupt into consciousness, I remove the “sting of death” by solely focusing on the fact that I walked away. Focus on the escape, Wilson, the “mercy of God,” the fact that I am still breathing:  anything but the reality of impending and inevitable death that I experienced.
The human condition is weird like this. We are born with survival instincts that presuppose there is always the possibility that we may not survive; yet we create avoidance-mechanisms so as to evade facing the fact that, at any moment, our life could be taken from us.
Most of us live as if we were immortals (which is a form of narcissism, by the way). Sure, we pay lip service to the fact that we will die “one day” but this is a mere intellectualization. Consequently, in our normal day-to-day living, we repress the awareness of constantly living on the razor’s edge of life and death.
If I do not face the reality of “my” death, however, I will live as if I had all the time in the world to—

Demonstrate and communicate the love I have for God and others

Become the person I intend to be

Discover who and what are actually important to me: who and what are worth living and dying for, to me.

Realize my vision

Create a legacy

When we face our mortality we are forced to answer the question of the meaning of life. Don Quixote tells us as much when in speaking to Sancho about the questioning look he saw in the eyes of the dying soldiers he had held in his arms:

Sancho Panza: Was it the question, “Why am I dying?”
Don Quixote: No, it was the question, “Why was I living?”

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2012 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Legendary Leaders: Haunted by Death

Part of what makes up the mindset of a Legendary Leader is the commitment to leaving a legacy: an opus that says, “This is who I was; this is who and what was important to me.” Of course, to think this way means that they have come to grips with the reality of their mortality. 
The topic of death is pretty much non-existent, today. At best, we may speak of it conceptually but it is quite rare for individuals to fully face the reality that they are going to die. In fact, many of us do everything in our power to avoid thinking about it. Some of us throw ourselves into our work, giving no thought to “for tomorrow you may die.” Some of us eat and drink our selves into oblivion. Some of us check out, living life on autopilot. Some of us adopt health fads, not so much as to be healthy but as a way of cheating death. Or so we hope. Our more spiritual brethren often create religious escape routes: “Live in the moment, giving no thought of tomorrow … and to the reality that I will die one day,” “I will not die: Jesus is coming back!” In doing any of this, however, we cut our selves off from living life to its fullest, to making every moment count, and to answering the question, “And what of my legacy?”

My Terrors
When I was a boy the prospect of death terrified me. Whether it was the friend of my sister's losing the horizon at night and flying his plane into the ocean, my Uncle dying from a heart attack, or a friend and schoolmate robbed and clubbed to death, each experience left me paralyzed with a fear that would leave me numb for weeks.
             I intuited that I needed to come to grips with death but whenever I thought about it my brain locked up.
             Being raised in a Christian home (my dad was a minister) I heard plenty of sermons about “waking to be with the Lord,” but these didn’t do a lot for me. In fact, I was horrified by funerals where it seemed to me people were celebrating the fact that the dead individual was gone! Yes, yes, I know in the Christian religion the belief is that this person is now with his God. But even St Paul said we were not to grieve as those who have no faith, which presupposes there is still grief. Anyway—
While I did my best to avoid thinking about death, off-and-on death would creep up on me, unexpectedly. I remembered while in my twenties actually praying that my grandfather (Monte Sr.) would never die. The thought of being in a world without him terrified me, as did all funerals, graveyards, and obituary columns.
My drug of choice for years was my religion. It wasn’t so much that what I believed wasn’t the Truth, but the fact that I got there on the cheap. I adopted my beliefs, not in faith, but in fear. I didn’t discover the Truth so much as glob on to a convenient belief that would help me avoid and pretend.
             When this belief stopped working for me, I adopted the “live in the moment” approach to life. Ultimately, I discovered that this too (for me) was a cop out: a kind of psychological ADD where I didn’t think about future consequences and realities: “All there is, is NOW!” But death was always close at hand, sometimes whispering, sometimes yelling at me.
Then there is the nihilistic mindset where life has no objective meaning, so all is vanity: Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you die. In these people’s minds their epitaph will read, “Whatever.” But this copout never appealed to me. Why? Because somewhere inside me I knew that life mattered, that there was a reason for my existence. And I discovered that this was one of the reasons why I could never trivialize our marginalize death: why it was such a huge deal to me.

Coming next: Embracing Your Mortality

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2012