THE BLOG
08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Learning to Die

Socrates said that we don't really have wisdom until we learn to die. Cornell West said the same thing in the acclaimed documentary Examined Life by Astra Taylor. When I first became interested in aging and how our culture views 'growing older' many years ago, I learned that, beyond a certain age, very few people seem to be afraid of death. Some may be afraid of dying with unfinished business, but we eventually reach a point when the fact of our death is no longer such a big deal. The big question is when will we face the fact that we will die?

Dr. Judith Rich wrote a great piece in the Huffington Post with the title "Knowing I Will Die Someday, How Then Will I Live?". No doubt, Dr. Rich has done the work to have come face to face with the inevitability of her own death and 'knowing' she will die someday is more than just a concept for her. But for many 'knowing' is just a concept -- not a deeply embodied certainty. For example, in our culture we assume that the knowledge of something will impact on our day-to-day choices and experience of living. If this were true, no one would smoke, everyone would be fit, and happiness would be the norm. Unfortunately, knowledge doesn't cause us to do anything. And most of us are doing what we are doing in spite of what we 'know'. Nowhere is this more evident than in relationship to our own mortality.

I think that 'learning to die' begins by acknowledging that we're all dying from the time we are born. We don't know how long we'll have or when the big moment will come or the circumstances of our demise. But all paths lead to the same end point -- at least on this planet.

What if you knew you were going to die in a week? Would that affect the quality of your life, your experience of living between now and then? It is hard to imagine that it would not. Even in the most adverse circumstances (such as death row in prison or in times of war), people report that the certainty or high probability of death bring an almost indescribable experience of aliveness -- a heightened awareness of being in the present. Some forgotten pundit once said, "Nothing so focuses the mind as the imminent prospect of being hanged".

But why should it take a crisis or life-threatening circumstances to open us to being fully alive -- to experiencing the moment and the fullness of what is possible? I think that is what Socrates was saying: ultimately, wisdom is about how to get the most out life. We can never do that if we are living in the past or some imagined future. Circumstances don't cause our experience -- being present (or not present) is when we can experience being alive. Some people may have 10,000 experiences and others one experience 10,000 times. The difference is whether we are living in the moment or in some story or commentary about what life should be.

'Living in the present' is also one of those maxims that is easy to understand but difficult to master. Having the concept isn't the same as mastery. In fact, one of the most certain ways to 'not be in the present' is to think about 'what to do' to be in the present. We all have the experience of being present -- as children we live in the present a lot. As adults we often find ourselves 'in the zone' when we play sports, participate in the performing arts or experience moments of profound intimacy. Being present is, at the end of the day, a way of being, not something we do. Being present is a state of 'surrender' and letting go while being open to possibility.

Learning to surrender (not succumb) is the essence of learning to die. It is the essence of accepting the fact we don't control most of what we think we control. It is 'letting go' of the past and the future and allowing ourselves to experience the serenity of just being alive. Mastery of this state can take a lifetime or occur in an instant. It is a transformation in our relationship with: 1) ourselves and other people, 2) the circumstances, and 3) time.

Learning to die is really learning to live. It is what we at The Eldering Institute® call "Wisdom in Action™".