Enjoying life in the context of death
The rain poured down on my bare shoulders, my hands raised into the air, as I stood in the rushing rapids of the Muskoka River and said to myself “this moment is worth dying for.” I meant it. In such a beautiful moment, why would I think something so grim? Why do I visit a cemetery every year on my birthday? Why, for 6 months straight, did I decide to think about death every morning? Let me explain…
About 7 years ago in University, I met with the Principal of my school, who quickly became one of my mentors. In our first conversation he asked me what my goals were for the school year. While I rambled on, he began to grin. His look told me he had a wealth of secret wisdom to be shared. He then asked his real question, “Academics aside, who do you want to be at the end of the school year?”
I love such poignant questions, so without holding back I told him my biggest desire: to be a person of joy. I told him how I felt numb, and could not grasp the beauty and goodness I knew was all around me. He became Mr. Miaggi, and I Danielson. The silence simmered. He packed up his things and just before leaving the room he quietly said, “cultivate thankfulness.”
This two word riddle bothered me until I came up with the concept that would be my tool for cultivation. I would look at life through the lens of death. See opportunity before it fades. I wrote myself a short poem as a reminder, taped it to the wall beside my bed, and slowly recited it on the way out the door each morning.
“Open your eyes oh sleeper,
Awake to a land of gifts.
Greet the morning air gratefully,
Kiss the darkness of the night.
Let light live,
While love can still be seen.
Though this was years ago, this lesson has been tattooed in my mind. I visit a cemetery every year on my birthday just to keep it fresh. In the presence of thousands of dead bodies, the fragility and resilience of life is exposed. I meditate, mindful that I could live 5 more minutes, or 50 more years. I pause in thankfulness of the past year I cannot relive, and in eager expectation of the year ahead — opportunity that must be embraced.
Advertisers spend billions to make us want, to make us feel need. In a world where apathy is the custom, pessimism is funny, and cynicism is smart — there is an alternative. And it is sad to say this is revolutionary. We must cultivate thankfulness in whatever way we can, and joy will overflow like the rapids of Muskoka.
Photo: Flickr / wickenden CC BY-SA 2.0