10 Feb Growth happens at our edges and by facing our fears
A group of us at work got together and started a Slack channel called #death. For the uninitiated (to Slack, that is) you can think about it as a running AOL Instant Messenger chat where likeminded aficionados meet to noodle on this topic. A quick glance in the channel shows topics such as “What happens to our digital lives when you die” to “Neighbors Fear New Wine Bar Will Increase Graveyard Sex” to “Death was everywhere at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop conference.”
The irony is that for 35 years I wanted nothing to the with the topic, a feeling that developed since I was a young boy. My approach mirrored that of a young Ezra Klein – every time the thought popped into his head, he’d repeat “No death” four times, to force it out of his psyche. And now next month, I’m leading a discussion on the topic at a massive conference. WTF!?! Don’t get me wrong; I’m still scared shitless of losing loved ones and as a secularist, terrified about the infinite nature of time. But like anything – money, relationships, identity – repressing a fear doesn’t make it go away. On the contrary, it causes it to bubble up in subconscious ways, often at the most inopportune times. For those of you who think in performance terms, “Growth happens at our edges.”
An unlikely ally in this perspective change was an introduction to the Zen Hospice Project (ironically through RadReads volume one). Given my perverted relationship with time, I was dumbfounded, yet curious (and kinda jealous) that terminally ill patients would choose to focus on maximizing the joy of their remaining days over extending their lives at any cost (which I detail extensively in this article). Three years later, it all came full circle when I got to interview Frank Ostaseski, the co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project and author of the incredible book .
As I devoured the book, I was struck by how it brought up all of the themes high-performing professionals struggle with. Being present for loved ones. The Inner Critic. Attachment to achievement. Ego and envy. Loving unconditionally. Frank reminds us that Life and Death are a package deal; denying one prevents us from “stepping into life fully and completely.”
Impermanence is Humbling
Buddhist philosophy reminds us that everything is impermanent. Everything – the good, the bad, and the ordinary. I’ve come to reluctantly accept this truism, yet still struggle to reconcile it with investing in things and people that we love – be it our families, this blog, or our 529s and 401(k)s.
Never one to shy from the pragmatic, I asked Frank whether I should take my daughter to Disneyland (i.e. live in the present) or invest in her college savings plan (i.e. save for the future). His advice:
Sometimes we use impermanence as a club. We think that if everything is impermanent, we shouldn’t invest in anything. I think it’s the opposite. Because things are impermanent, we invest. We step into them. We engage completely with our lives. It’s ok to have plans, we need to have plans. You need to prepare for your daughter’s future. But also we want to hold it lightly. We know that all plans are subject to change. And if we try to ramrod our way through life, we have some degree of suffering. So have a plan. Hold it lightly. But don’t let future prohibit you from enjoying what’s here now.”
Fear is my teacher
I spent much of my life afraid. Not necessarily afraid of bad shit happening (save for this topic) but what psychiatrists call little traumas (failure, acceptance into a group, making mistakes). But our fear is rich in information content. If we lean into it, not only do we realize that it isn’t as scary as we think, but it also opens us up to possibility, creativity, and resilience. Frank describes that by choosing to “manage the conditions” of fear (versus diagnosing the root cause) we become stuck in a life of reactivity:
With most of our experiences with fear, we can run but we can’t hide. So when we press that fear, turn away from that fear, and override it – we don’t learn anything about the fear itself. All we’ve done is manage the conditions. And that’s a bit like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We got all the deck chairs in order, but we’re missing the big picture.
So let’s get to know it, so we can encourage that gap in the center of it – where we can move from reactivity to responsiveness. There’s a stimulus that’s arising now, what do we do? If we follow our knee-jerk reaction, we’re just going to play out the habit we played before. And big surprise, that’s probably not going to make much of a difference.
And the two questions that matter
So what does matter at the end of life? According to Frank, two simple questions: Am I loved? Did I love well? And here’s the brass tax on the Buddhist mumbo-jumbo about “being present.” We can live the answers to those two questions starting today. We can stop holding grudges and forgive. We can tell people how much we love them, incessantly. When faced with the choice of work (or Facebook) over our family, we should remember this. Not to nag or judge ourselves, but instead just to realign towards our True North. Frank implores us to start today:
So why wait until the end of our life to answer and engage with these questions? The wisdom of what death teaches is not how many toys can you collect in this lifetime. But instead, what really matters. This makes us kinder to one another and it makes us more receptive to the world. We tell people who we love, that we love them more. Because we know that they won’t be there all the time.
Frank’s convinced me that life and death are a package deal. And that’s not a bad thing.
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