Destiny awaits us all
I’m not a fan of affirmations.
I tried them for a while several years ago. I would write down 5-7 affirmations every morning first thing, but I never really felt like I was getting anything out of the exercise. On the other hand, I have had a hit of financial success since then so maybe I’m wrong. Scott Addams, who I think is one of the most interesting thinkers alive today, is a believer and obviously has had truckloads of success.
Recently I’ve been reading The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman (I found it via this excellent review from Ben Casnocha). It’s an easy read that nonetheless delves deeply into fundamental ideas about human nature. If I had to boil it down, I’d describe it as stoicism meets Buddhism. These two philosophies have always resonated with me. Buddhism I’ve been vaguely aware of since I was a child. I first became interested in stoicism while reading Tom Wolf’s exquisite A Man in Full.
The Antidote has a chapter about the role of death in happiness. Counterintuitive, I know. Burkeman suggests that we should all contemplate death on a daily basis. By doing so, we are less likely to fall into the trap of not seeing the happiness that is right in front of us. Much of what he writes in this chapter is based onThe Denial of Death, which I also happen to be reading. (Six-word review: very good, but also very dense.)
This is not a new idea. “Live every day as if it is your last” is a common inspirational message. Steve Jobs’ famous commencement address is often cited. The speech is indeed inspirational, but I think it misdirects somewhat.
Why? Because the meta-message of Jobs’ speech, even if he didn’t intend it, is that you too can become one of the most successful businessmen in history if you adopt his philosophy. You can change the world!
But what if you don’t change the world? What if you are just another insignificant blip? Is that failure? Should your happiness dim?
“Live every day as if it is your last” leaves out the most important word: death. You will die. Oblivion awaits. Someday in the not-distant future there will no longer be a “you” to experience reality.
The point of thinking about death, I believe, is not to think about “success.” Rather, it’s to think about fear. Fear of losing your job. Fear of starting a company. Fear of introducing yourself to someone you’re attracted to. Fear of telling the truth in your relationships. Fear of ending a relationship that’s not working. Fear of failure. Fear of being alone.
In other words, fear of revealing your true self, your true desires. Fear of vulnerability.
The human mind is excellent at denial. We believe that we are immortal, and anything that challenges that belief is either avoided or transformed into a story of immortality (i.e. the afterlife). We use icons like Jobs, the Buddha and Jesus – who all appear quasi-immortal to us – to wish away reality. These people are all dead, and they will remain so for eternity.
(Apologies to any Christians who believe Jesus will return. My intention is not to start an argument. Suffice it to say that I personally believe he was just a very wise man who is now dead like all the others.)
It’s not just people. We use institutions, too. Monuments, culture, nationalism, patriotism, sacred books, the Constitution, presidential libraries: all of these reinforce the illusion of immortality.
Perhaps we could all learn from Woody Allen, who once said “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.”
So that’s all a prelude to my new daily affirmation, which I put as a recurring task on my calendar to pop up every day at 8:45 am:
Someday, perhaps today, you will die.