My obituary is already written. No, I’m not dying. Well, no more than most people. Daily we’re all dying. Bit by bit. Some of us more so than others.
I don’t remember when I first created a Word document entitled, “When I Die.” One day I created it and sat down to write down out what I wanted to happen when I die. There wasn’t a circuit breaker moment that caused me to consider my mortality. I’ve considered my mortality all my life. I also consider the mortality of my loved ones, mostly my wife.
If you’ve listened to or read my stuff you know I’m a Christian. I’m trying to be a devout Christian. We can all do better and I need to try harder. It’s the never ending quest. A process.
Part of my Christian faith – a big part – focuses on the Judgment. The fact that there is an eternity, a life beyond this one, changes everything about my perspective about this life. And about death.
I can’t separate my faith from thoughts of my death. Or from thoughts of anybody’s death.
Hebrews 9:27 “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.”
Before Judgment comes death. Death is ever present. It’s in the news. Movies and books show it often. Some of the most impactful stories use it as a centerpiece. But when it comes to our death we grow queasy. Death is a better spectator sport.
Robin Williams’ death raised all kinds of speculation and commentary. Mental health, Parkinson’s disease, suicide, depression and all sorts of conversations ensued after Robin took his own life. I was thinking of death long before. Not because I’ve got any knowledge of failing health, but because I know it’s an appointment that we’ll all meet.
My current Word document shows it was created on Monday, July 7, 2008 at 10:00 PM. I’m uncertain if that’s when I first created such a document, but maybe it’s right.
I grew up attending funerals of church members. Singing hymns. Hearing prayers uttered. Standing at a graveside, watching people mourn. Fascinated by pall bearers who would remove their lapel flowers, place them on the casket before it would be lowered into the ground. The open casket always seemed odd to me. Adults would attempt to explain it, “It gives people a sense of them really being gone.” As though if they didn’t see the person actually dead, in the casket, then they might wonder, “Are they really dead?”
I have no idea how many funeral sermons I’ve heard. Today I can’t remember how many funeral sermons I’ve preached. I hate doing it. Not for reasons you might think. I hate it because my empathy factor is outrageously high. That makes it’s tough for me to hold it together. Not that I mind crying in public, but it’s not particularly strengthening for the family if the guy preaching the funeral loses it. Trust me…you don’t want to be that guy!
Our circuit breaker will eventually blow. The energy we pass through from now until then is entirely of our choosing. I’m not certain it’s all about passing through as much energy as possible. Rather, I suspect it’s more about passing through as much meaningful energy as we can. The electricity in our houses can power a radio that plays the music we find most annoying…or it can play the music we love most. Same juice, different output.
Thinking Of Death Focuses Me On The Output Instead Of The Input
Our lives are comprised of input and output. I suspect most of us focus mostly on input because it seems easier. And we’ve grown accustomed to viewing and watching. So we read blogs, books, articles and ebooks. Well, to be fair – we scan over them. It’s likely that few of us actually read the entirety of anything. The preacher who married us back in 1978 is a book hound with an extensive library of religious books. Once, while talking about other preachers who collected and accumulated massive libraries, he remarked, “The difference between me and them is I’ve read all the books in my library.”
I’m guilty. I will read a book or article and if it doesn’t snag enough attention right away, then I will either put it down or I’ll begin scanning. I’ve not always done that. I used to read everything grinding it out if it was uninteresting, feeling I had invested this much time…why not keep at it hoping it finally grows exciting. After repeated instances of wasting too much time reading crap that never materialized into meaningful content, I decided a different approach was needed.
Digital books haven’t helped me with input focus. I love the portability of them. I hate the lack of tactile sensation. And I hate the lost sensation of past, present and future. Jeremy Rifkin in Time Wars wrote of the old analog watches and clocks versus the digital ones. Clocks with hands show us the past, present and future. Digital ones only show us the present. Such is the plight of the digital age.
It makes sense that we’ve grown increasingly obsessed with input. Moore’s Law has been applied to a number of things including information and data. According to Science Daily, a full 90% of all the data in the world has been generated over the past few years. But there’s a lot more that just data happening. Click on the website of WorldOMeters and you can see a running tally of how many blog posts are being published. On June 22, 2012 Mashable published an article with an infographic entitled, “Data Never Sleeps,” about how much information is published every minute.
No wonder we’re focused on input – or consumption. There’s a lot out there to consume. Plus, all the luring headlines captivate us and suck us in like a carnival barker or Bourbon Street doorman hollering, “Hot and nasty inside!” It’s all designed to do exactly what we did as kids when we’d prank somebody to look at something, then we’d say, “Made ya look!” The world is making us look. Okay, they’re not making us look, but they’re making it hard to avoid looking.
Okay, right now think about dying. You, dying.
That kill your desire to go read another blog, huh? See. Thinking of death will quickly focus you.
As you’re thinking about your own death you’re not thinking about a new book or movie. You’re not thinking about buying concert tickets to your favorite band. Or downloading their latest hit.
You’re not thinking about what anybody can do for you. You’re not wishing somebody would help you paint your house or clean your garage.
You’re thinking about what YOU can do. You’re thinking about YOU need to do. And you’re thinking about people. Mostly, the people you love. Family. Maybe close friends. Not Internet friends. Real life friends. People who are in your favorites on your iPhone.
You’re not thinking of them doing something for you. You’re thinking about what you want to do for them. When you consider your own death you’re going to start thinking of your actions – your output. It’s about what you can do for these people you care about most.
Thinking Of Death Focuses Me On The Important
Try it. Think about your own death and try to embrace a trivial thought at the same time. You’ll fail. It can’t happen. Not if you’re really thinking about your death.
The score of the ballgame doesn’t matter. Shoot, your job doesn’t even matter when you’re thinking of your death. The most important things that dominate your time suddenly lose all value when you consider your death.
You’ve likely experienced this without thinking about your own death directly. These feelings have probably hit you when you learned about the death of a family member or close friend. Death is an instant priority correction tool.
For me, it’s spiritual. Thinking of my own death forces me to consider seriously my relationship with God. It makes me think of whatever sin may be in my life that I know needs to be corrected (repented of, confessed and forgiveness sought).
Thinking of my own death focuses me instantly on my wife and my family. My tribe started with just me and Rhonda. Then came Ryan, our son. Then Renae, our daughter. Today, my tribe includes a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law and four grandchildren. These are the people who instantly get priority in my mind when I consider my own death.
I think about the things I’d like to say, but maybe have yet to say. I’m a podcaster so it comes as no surprise that talking and communicating are crucial for me. Death makes me think even more about how I feel about these people and the things I want to make certain they know before I leave.
Thinking of my own death focuses me on the people I serve at church. It’s not a large group, but it’s an important group. Like my family, I consider the things I’d like them to know. I think of some lessons I’d like to teach them, wisdom I’d like to pass on. And I consider some more specific things that have to do with spiritual living. I think of my obligations to these people, my responsibilities to their spiritual welfare.
Nothing else matters. Not to me. You’ve got to consider your own priorities. Isn’t that a big part of what leaning toward wisdom is all about? Making sure your priorities are straight?
My Document Is Constantly Being Revised
Years ago when I created this new document, I named it “When I Die.” The title has never changed, but the content has. I open it and edit it at least four times a year. Some years more. Like last Spring. When I lost a lifelong best friend, Stanley.
This past April I released a podcast episode entitled, 6 Lessons I Learned In A Year Of Suffering (Reflections On Losing A Lifelong Friend). A year earlier on May 12, 2013 I published a blog and podcast titled, As My Lifelong Best Friend Lay Dying. When your best friend – a friend you’ve always known – dies, you’ll soberly consider your own death. Days later, on May 15, 2013 I wrote a blog post, Top 10 Ways To Prepare For The Funeral Of Your Best Friend.
My document contains the specifics of what I want “When I Die.” Rhonda won’t have to do a thing other than follow my wishes. It’s all spelled out. In detail. She knows who I want to do what. She knows what I care about most and what I’ve told her she can adjust if she’d like. The document stays updated in a DropBox folder that she and I share. I don’t think she’s ever looked at the document. I suspect she never will until I’m gone. She’s also got another copy of it on a USB drive that’s locked away in a safe. I make sure I keep it updated whenever a thought comes to mind about something I’d like to change.
There are some other things in that folder, too. There’s a letter to her. Then there are letters to my son and my daughter. I’ve even got a letter to a fellow servant at church.
I’ve also passed along some instructions about this online stuff. Passwords and other things. I suspect there’s a business waiting to be born (maybe there’s one already there that I don’t know about) that can help people with the digital footprint of a loved one who has passed on. My digital footprint is way too big and I don’t have any notion that my family will be able to properly handle it, but I’ve written a few pages that may help.
I must have edited my “When I Die” document and the other documents in that folder about 10 times since last May. I know the last year has been an outlier though. I won’t maintain that mad editing pace. Time does that. It softens things a bit. Takes the edge off.
The Benefits Of Embracing The Edge
Some days I find benefits in embracing the edges that result in thinking about death and dying. Now I’m not advocating some unsafe obsession with death. And I’m completely against suicide because killing violates God’s rules. We have no right to kill anybody, ourselves included. Yes, I’m against abortion for the same reason. So I’m not talking about embracing some notion of these actions. I’m talking about avoiding taking the edge off death by thinking about what matters most…the things we’d like to accomplish before we die.
Maybe some people think about making money. I don’t see how, but what do I know? You’ve likely heard the old adage that no dying man ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” Surely that’s true, but I know some guys who seem unconvinced that they won’t be able to take their money with them when they die. Money is their god. Sadly, it’s not a god that can save them, but they serve it like it can.
I know thinking of death is hard, but sometimes we need to endure hard. We need to avoid easy and simple. Sometimes.
Sure, it’s heavy stuff. Sobering. Maybe even depressing. But look at the benefits. I’ve not touched the hem of it and it’s pretty powerful to consider how it can help us grow and be better!
I grew up hearing sermons with titles like, “If I Died Tonight.” If you’re a church going type person you probably know the kind of sermon that’d be. One where you’re encouraged to consider all the things you’d do if you knew tonight you were going to die. It’s a pretty common exercise – to consider how you’re life would be different if you knew you only had a specific amount of time left.
I’ve long said that there’s no courage in asking the question, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” The courage is in answering it.
Thinking of my own death helps me do that. It’s a worthwhile practice. I need to make it even more worthwhile by putting into action all the things death forces me to consider.