We are only here for a moment. Our time here is circumscribed by birth and death. The time of our birth, our birthday, is established in the past as chronological fact. However, the time of our death, our “deathday,” remains shrouded behind the impenetrable mystery and secrecy of the future. Death reminds us that our lifetime is finite, and that time, as uncertain and fleeting as it may be, is our most precious resource. In contemplating the time of our death, we affirm the gift of life and infuse it with a sense of awe, reverence, wonder, imagination, and creativity.
The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life’s joy. One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life, but as an aspect of life.
Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death. The conquest of fear yields the courage of life. That is the cardinal initiation of every heroic adventure – fearlessness and achievement.
– Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (1988, p.152)
Death is the culmination of aging. It infuses the felt-meaning of our lifetime with a primal and sacred sense of connectedness. Death is the opposite of birth, but it is not the opposite of life. Through our impermanence we discover the deeper undercurrents of togetherness, relationship, connectedness, and belonging. Our momentary existence is the essence of our humanity and the source of our humility.
The earth supports billions of human lives that ebb and flow in constant cycles of birth and death. Every human being is relentlessly propelled through a finite and uncertain amount of time leaving a unique story in their wake. This vast, fluid, and powerful cycle of life is the very essence of our belonging and connection to one another.
The time of our death is an unavoidable reality in the ecology of life. In a vital sense, the terminal condition of life is the precise location of our universal bond. To develop an imaginative awareness of the time of our death is to foster a deep sense of relationship and participation with our true nature.
We might imagine our own death day. For example, if the life expectancy of a fifty-year old male is thirty-one years, then his statistical time of death would occur in the year 2045. Our hypothetical fifty-year old might take it further and imagine his precise time of death will be 7:34pm on September 26, 2045 at age 81.
Of course, anything can happen. Our fifty-year old may die tomorrow, or live to become a centenarian. Time never fully reveals itself to us; it is never completely transparent. This lack of transparency is the essence of our conundrum in establishing a relationship with time. We must learn to flourish in life while being immersed in uncertainty. Time is not regular, mechanical, and predictable; it is the essence of mystery.
Every human life is infused with startling sense of brevity. Our time here is both fleeting and swift. To creatively embrace aging and our own impermanence is to develop an intimate relationship with time, or more specifically, with the untamed wildness and clandestine nature of time that lurks deep inside each one of us.
Clocks and calendars impersonate time and make it routine, statistical, manageable, and coldly unimaginative. A clock presents the illusion of time in the form of a series of evenly spaced units. Time never moves in this way. To reduce time to mere mechanical drone is to lose touch with the primal and primary elements of life. We live in a coldly technical age in which time is something to be “managed” rather recognizing it as the presence of grace.
Time is perishable; our time here will end. Life can indeed pass us by in the sense of living without a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. When time passes us by we feel a sense of degradation and loss in the quality of our experience here. It is in this sense that life passes us by.
The essence of regret resonates in the phrase, “Time has passed me by.” Time is not recoverable; it cannot be replenished. Once a period of time has passed it can only be reminisced through the creativity and imagination of memory. Our time in life eventually becomes an echo of something that has already passed through and is no longer visible.
The essence of our lifetime is fluid unpredictability. The felt-meaning of time is unique and deeply personal. Each one of us feels, senses, and touches time differently. The unique flow of our experience across time is the origin of our unique story, our narrative of what we did while we were here. Time creates the phenomena of biography and autobiography.
We live in all the ages all at once. Although the guru advises us to live firmly in the present moment, the reality is that our consciousness is innately immersed in the constant flow of past, present, and future. We can be mindful of the present moment, but not in the complete absence of the past or future. Time, in all its mystery, depth, and allurement, is ever present in our awareness.
We are all artists of time. We cannot be imaginative or creative in our use of time unless we contemplate the time of our death. Through the courageous consideration of death, we become the artists of our own time and embrace a sense of discovery and adventure in our experience. It may be that our fear of death and dying is an unexpectedly powerful source of creativity and wisdom that leads to “the recovery of life’s joy.
We can live on borrowed time, that is to say, we are living longer than expected. We can die before our time, that is, our lifespan is shorter than expected. We can live past our time in the sense that our life is medically extended even though our quality of life may not be. The emerging issue of our “right to die” and physician-assisted suicide means that we may schedule a time of death. And in the darkness of unmanageable suffering, we may bring an end to our time here through private self-destruction.
In our lifetime, we also stand witness to the influence of death and dying our friends, family, and loved ones. A child dying before his or her time is the worst horror a parent can imagine. A child firmly standing by a parent who is experiencing a long, slow and painful process of dying becomes initiated in the harsh reality of death. No child wants to experience the long and agonizing death of a parent.
Time can easily slip through our fingers and we can be left wondering where it has gone. Our goals and dreams for the kind of life we wished to live suffer from the reality of a future that has arrived too quickly. Perhaps there are times when we never feel as though we are actually in or belong our own life.
Emerging dialogues about death and dying often focus on the gnawing tension between a long life and the quality of life. A longer life is not necessarily a better life. Longevity as an end unto itself is not enough. We can medically extend our longevity deep into frailty, but the same science that extends our longevity remains outrageously silent on extending our quality of life, which has become the domain of palliative care.
Death advises us that time is our most precious resource. The time of our death imbues the feeling of life with a necessary sense of urgency. It reminds us to bring all of our creative and imaginative faculties to bear on moving through an uncertain amount of time with a sense of awe, reverence, wonder, imagination, and creativity.