I received this essay from Kenny Moore yesterday. His commentaries are always full of blessing and humor. I'm sure you'll enjoy this one.
I had to fly to Pittsburgh on business the other day and I thought I was going to die. Not that anything traumatic happened. In fact, the trip was uneventful. Just the same, I made sure I kissed my wife and hugged the kids before I left for the airport. I've changed my behavior to now consider that this might be the last time I see them before my untimely demise. I get similar feelings when I drive over a bridge or go through a tunnel. Attending a meeting in a tall office building or opening a piece of mail sets off the same alarm.
Airports have become the new chapels of the world. A flight on a plane has become a call to prayer. I'm also finding that it's kind of bizarre leaving my house at 4:00 a.m. to catch a 7 o'clock flight, when the airport "chaplains" don't even make it in till 6:00 a.m. I wind up waiting on line in the dark for an hour or more to bolster patriotism and protect myself from terrorists. I guess it's a spiritual thing.
Psychology 101 taught that most of us live our lives in a serious state of denial about death. Woody Allen said that he didn't mind dying; he just didn't want to be there when it happened. I like living my life that way. It helps me get on with it, remain productive and fight morbid thoughts. Even though I'm aware that I can buy my coffin ahead of time on the web and realize considerable savings, I still avoid the transaction.
However, my life wasn't always one that ran from discussions of death. Or eschewed meditations on the frail human condition. There was a time when it was different.
An Older Tradition
In my younger days, I spent 15 years in a monastic community. They had a spiritual practice called "The Exercise for a Happy Death." Sounds kind of morbid, but if truth be told, it was rather refreshing. On the last day of each month, you spent time alone reflecting on death. It was a chance to see what you were doing right and wrong. A time to leave behind the distractions of the day-to-day world, go inside yourself and get clear on what's important. There would be prayer services and a chance to confess your sins to the priest. Some would spend the time planning their own funerals. Eulogies were occasionally scripted and I'm sure some monks would have prepared PowerPoint presentations if there were computers back then.
There was something called a "Superfluous Box" that was put out for the entire day. The idea was that if you had acquired anything over the past month that you really didn't need or that encroached on your commitment to the simple monastic life, you were to deposit it in the box. It would be given to the poor or more needy members of the community. This was a chance to lighten the load on your personal journey to sanctity. Lunch was intentionally austere to keep the senses focused on eternity. However, "The Exercise for a Happy Death" always ended with full dinner and a special dessert. It represented a spiritual sense of humor: while we spent the day focusing on the grave, life still needed to be lived and celebrated.
My transition from the religious to the secular world has been going on for over 20 years. The most noticeable difference is that when I was in the monastery, 20% of my superiors thought they were Divinely inspired. In business, the number's up to 80%. As we aging baby-boomers confront mortality with cancer, strokes and wrinkles and I put my life on the line just going to work, I consider "The Exercise for a Happy Death" as a practice worth transplanting into the secular world. And my monastic roots are starting to resurface in peculiar ways:
1. I wake up daily with the prospect of death before me;
2. A brief prayer of thanks gets uttered as my feet hit the bedroom floor;
3. At work I become more tolerant of others, wondering if maybe they'll be dead sometime soon;
4. I spend part of my day getting quiet and going inside myself;
5. I write letters and cards to my wife and two young boys that get put away in a box in the basement. When I die, I've arranged that they'll be presented to them as gifts from the grave: expressions of love and remembrance from someone who's gone;
6. On the last day of each month, I eat a hearty dinner and partake of a special dessert to recall that I'm still alive and have other chances to cooperate with the Divine;
7. I give away things I no longer need and look for reasons to put a few bucks in someone else's palm;
8. I acknowledge my mistakes and make it a point to say sorry somewhere in the day;
9. I read obituaries in the newspaper for inspiration, hope and humor. I remain in awe of how the human condition works itself out with zest, flair and a slightly twisted sense of the sacred.
The final curtain
Steven Wright, the comedian, may have nailed it on the head when he said: "I believe I'll live forever. So far, so good!" I don't know if it is ever possible to get in touch with our mortality or fully comprehend the preciousness of life. And it's certainly been more challenging living outside the cloistered walls. I've personally had two near-death experiences over the years. I came away from both with a profound sense of clarity and thankfulness. But alas, it was short-lived. A few months down the road, I was back yelling at the kids, criticizing the wife and complaining about senior management. My therapist said it was a sign of normalcy. I felt like I had lost something precious.
To help regain some of what got lost, I take more risks to scare myself back into clarity. If I could be dead tomorrow, what should I not pass up doing for want of courage? "I wouldn't be caught dead doing that..." gets repositioned into "So what is it that I want to be caught dead doing?" Then I go out and do it. Some might say that's suicidal. I find it enlivening. There are consequences, though. I am living with significantly more guilt, as well as a marked attraction to tomfoolery. The propensity to say, "What the hell ... let's try it" has increased. My wife says it's gotten out of hand. I fear she'll seek revenge when she writes my eulogy.
Fortunately, there are the daily business reminders to keep me on track. All I need do is get ready for my next business trip or open an unsolicited piece of mail. New opportunities are presented once again. I'm learning to take advantage of them ... for who knows? Maybe one day it will all come to an end.
P.S. If you're thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author of 'The CEO and the Monk'