Life from Death
Awareness of death can give you the gift of presence and ignite a deeper desire for life. One way to gain these gifts is to practice death before it sweeps us away. It sounds strange, but such a practice can help us thrive. As one of my Jewish friends explained, that’s exactly why some Jewish communities celebrate the holiday of Yom Kippur. The most common prayer of that day is called the Unetaneh Tokef. Rabbi David Wolpe explains, “This prayer reminds us that our lives are like the wind that blows and the flower that fades.” Other traditions include wearing white to connote purity and to represent the shrouds in which we will be buried. Rabbi Wolpe sums it up: “In Yom Kippur we emulate corpses: not eating, not drinking, freed of the body. This will one day be our fate.” Such a celebration really makes sense—facing your own death so that you can live. This idea shows up as a theme in other world religions, in literature, and in one of my favorite films, Dead Poets Society.
In one scene, the protagonist, English teacher John Keating, leads his students into the hall. He asks his pupils to look at the photographs of past students who have died. Keating asks his students to stare into their eyes. He raises the point that these students are just like them. They too believed they were destined for great things. Their eyes shone with hope. Keating’s students stare in silence. Then he makes his point: “If you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. Do you hear it? (whispering in a gruff voice) Carpe. Hear it? (whispering) Carpe. Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
The entire film hinges upon those two words, carpe diem. This is not an antiquated and innocuous phrase but a call to fight. Seizing the day isn’t a passive phrase. And life is too short to let it slip away. Such inspiration rings true no matter who we are or what our age. We have all been designed to be and to do certain things, but fear holds us back. Let the idea of death help you to overcome. Let it be a fuse that ignites your creative soul. This life is your one wild chance—don’t let it drift away. Stop living a half-lived life. Your time is running out. You will die. Make the most of what you have. Live life to the fullest degree by letting death distill what is most important to you.
- DEATH IS OUR FRIEND PRECISELY BECAUSE IT BRINGS US INTO ABSOLUTE AND PASSIONATE PRESENCE WITH ALL THAT IS HERE, THAT IS NATURAL, THAT IS LOVE.
- — RAINER MARIA RILKE