We all have important decisions to make every day. Some large, some small. Choices that seem to move our lives in one direction and away from another. Saying “Yes” always also means saying “No.” Many struggle at the crossroads of decisions- suffering to find the “right” answer but without a clear compass in decision making. Running from one side of the teeter totter to the other, carefully balancing options so no choice is made and the deep freeze of neurotic indecisiveness sets in (which is often an unconscious drive to externalize responsibility and avoid the anxiety of choice).
There is rarely a clear “right” answer and the answer to many question is, at its core, one of values. When we move our lives in a direction grounded by a deeper sense of being-in-the-world we feel a sense of peace wash over and we don’t insist on knowing it is the absolute “right” path because we come to realize no such path exists. We often only need to get out of our own way to see more clearly (the myriad of ways we do this and the possibility of therapy to clear things out can’t be overstated here). A better question when facing a decision is- how do I find my way into the right frame of mind for a solution or path to become evident?
Truth is, we all have access to nearly instant wisdom about what to do in any given moment. It’s hidden in plain sight. It is the awareness of our own death. We believe death is something that happens to strangers, to our 5th cousin stricken with a rare disease, or maybeeee to us but much much further down the road and defiantly in our old age. We are frightened to confront that death is always a possibility. Every day. Anytime. Anywhere. Even those whose belief is that death is a ticket to eternal bliss don’t want to die to get to paradise. It’s a scary bridge for all. In any case, it’s most assuredly a goodbye to this world and all we have come to very humanly take for granted.
The wise and lucid Don Juan in Carlos Castendas book Journey to Ixitlan says “Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch.” And to remain wise you should “…always keep death on your left shoulder.”
While an undergrad Chapman University I took a class called the Sociology of Death. It was an incredible dive into confronting my own mortality. Homework assignments ranged from planning our own funeral (type of velvet in casket, music, approximate attendance) to sitting silent in a cemetery for an hour journaling and watching our thoughts, emotions, and associations. The result of this class was one of the major impetus and motivators for pursuing a career as a clinical psychologist. I even ended up teaching a very similar course in my graduate program. I saw helping others as a way to pay forward the healing I had received and a meaningful way to spend my time on earth- however long it ended up being. I started to volunteer for Silverado Hospice- something I did for a number of years. I pictured my own death bed and the meaning that came from spending a life in service. Death has an immediate way of reorganizing our values and answering the questions “what should I do?” And “how do I find the motivation to get there?”
There will be an instance in which you will kiss your spouse, child, or parent for the last time. There will be a last time when you will get a splinter, watch a sunset, or look up at the night sky. If we can tolerate coming out from our forever-illusion we can be with this truth- even for a moment. Irvin Yalom, a famous psychologist, calls it “staring into the sun” a catchy line he titled his own book on death and psychotherapy. If we can stare even for a moment, we come to realize a few things. How precious this very minute is – even if you are just taking out the trash or washing the dishes. There will be a last time for this too. If you can remember to keep death on your left shoulder, you will most assuredly pursue meaningful living and enter more fully the life that is yours in this very moment. Death is the ticket to our passions, gratitude and a true companion on the journey.