Psychologists, psychiatrists and anthropologists, including Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Ernest Becker, have all identified our underlying, unconscious fear of death as the underlying force determining much of the way we live. The desire to deny the reality of death, the theory goes, makes us want to find a way to “live on,” whether through our children, or by attaching ourselves to causes that will not be buried along with us.
The denial of death, however, also can be understood as distancing us from the moment-to-moment importance of being vibrantly mortal—of really feeling things, really loving others and showing it, really seeing the world around us and really speaking our minds with courage and acting on our core beliefs.
I think we should do everything we can to defeat the denial of death, because it is only when we feel how exquisitely mortal we really are that we can hope to live as fully as we might.
I was partly stripped of my denial by going to medical school. I saw lots of very young people get very ominous diagnoses, completely out of the blue. I saw people brought to the ER, who had seemed to be in perfectly good health, who collapsed and died playing a game of football, or jogging or shopping for groceries. And I often wondered whether they had done anything at all in the last month that they would have wanted to do, for sure, if they had known it would be their last month.
Right about now, you might be tempted to click to another page of FoxNews.com. The denial of death is a formidable force. Don’t give in. Stick with me, here.
What if you did not one, but three things, in the next three weeks that you would want to do, for sure, if you knew you were going to die at the end of those three weeks? I’m not talking about trips to Bali, necessarily.
Who would you want to tell that you loved them—and why? To whom would you want to apologize? To whom would you want to send a gift, just to make them smile, or so that they would know that you know what makes them tick? To whom would you want to tell a gut-wrenching truth? Whose ideas would you want to support in writing and whose would you want to oppose? What would you tell your child to change her life? Which charity would you want to send a donation to? What habit would you want to conquer, not because you were going to prove you couldn’t smoke or drink or gamble for the rest of your life, but for the last three weeks of your life?
If you do just three things in the next three weeks that you would do, for sure, if you knew you were going to die, you will improve your life. You won’t necessarily be in a new job. You won’t necessarily be in a new relationship. But you will be different.
If you do this three times—my own 9 plan (three times three)—you will be on the way not so much to actually remaking your life, as to truly living your life.
From my perspective, keeping death as part of your conscious thoughts, rather than burying it in your unconscious mind, actually makes you braver, not more fearful.
I have a favorite saying that I came up with after I had my first child. I say it to myself whenever I feel vulnerable or threatened. It’s simple and it’s grounding. I tell myself, “He’s not a pediatrician.”
See, I also completed a pediatrics rotation in medical school. And I saw kids get those same terrible diagnoses. And once you actually recognize that an anonymous illness can visit a child of yours at any moment, you end up fearing other things a lot less. You can be my employer with bad news or my business partner with bad news or someone who hates my ideas and wishes I didn’t exist, but if you aren’t a pediatrician, I don’t sweat you.
Think about my 9 plan—three things in three weeks, times three. Simple things. Letters, calls, visits, words. Your life could change by keeping your death very much in mind.
As Ernest Becker said, “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.