Are you afraid to die?
I have sat by the bed of many a dying man and woman. Those who are afraid of dying are—at bottom—afraid that perhaps they have not actually lived. It doesn’t matter if they are great church-goers. It doesn’t matter if, by all appearances, they’ve been a good person. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been born again, or been to mass daily, or spent summers at ashrams. All of these things are good and beautiful and, in different traditions, very important. But they are only means to an end. They are not the end. The end is life. The end, the point of it all is to live.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
It is possible to go through your whole life and not live. You are breathing and walking, bearing children, talking, working and eating and cleaning out the garage. It looks for all the world like you are alive. But you are only going through the motions. You are not fully awake, not really aware. Someone remarked that the worst thing that could be said of a man is that he did not pay attention. Livers pay attention. They “front only the essential facts of life.” This is what Jesus meant when he asked, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Then, as now, people imagined that if they could accumulate power, prestige and possessions—if they could “gain the whole world”—they would be wonderfully alive. Most of us are quite modest, really. We would never say that we wanted to gain the whole world. Oh, no. We want “only” a quiet little life with a steady income, enough “only” to maintain the manner of living to which we have become accustomed, children and grandchildren who have “only” the privileges we inherited, a small circle of comely friends, a quiet place to retire.
There’s nothing wrong with a steady income or wanting good things for your children and grandchildren. (Which is why this is so tricky!) It’s just: can you see that these are means and not the end? Are you paying attention? Are you awake? Today, are you “front[ing] only the essential facts of life”? Have you gained or lost your own soul?
Do this, and you will live. And you will also have this little added benefit: when it comes time to die you will not have to be afraid.