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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Acceptance of Mortality

Jenny and I have been having a side discussion on the relationship between accepting our mortality and living intentionally. So we decided that it might be a discussion which our blog readers might like to join.

"How many of us," asks author and minister Wayne Muller "are secretly waiting for some magical permission--like a diagnosis of terminal illness--before we truly begin to listen to the quiet dreams, the desires of the heart?"

To live intentionally is to live authentically. To show up for each day ready to create something special that reflects of our unique blend of values, wisdom, passion and skill. It takes some courage to live this way. And I wonder if it is this fear of our own mortality that keeps some of us stuck and unable to live authentic lives.

Perhaps, if we had a terminal illness maybe we could more freely let go of tasks and responsibilities we have no other excuse to avoid. Would we feel less rushed in life and live more quietly, peacefully and purposefully?

Muller suggests that if we can accept our mortality we can be set free from the illusion that "one more phone call, one more meeting, another hundred dollars will buy us safety, happiness, and immortality." Does our presumed immortality permit us to be sloppy and imprecise in our lives? We can always clean up later, right? We give hardly any thought to what we hold sacred as a fully franchised adult member of the human species...let alone let that guide our lives.

And what's our culture telling us about the aging process? Is it affirming our mortality? From where I am, I don't see this! So each of us who really strive to live life intentionally will have to find this acceptance of our mortality and in so doing free ourselves to live each day with courage, clarity, purpose and love.


Jenny Sasser said...

David, this issue is so complex and so important to have a sustained, bold conversation about. I appreciate that you've had the courage to begin this conversation in the context of our blog.

In our society, we conflate the old with the
dying. That's one of the reasons why as a society we have such ambivalence around later
life and old age. We don't want to be reminded of our own frailty, impermance, and mortality, and the old amongst us remind us of these things. And yet, and yet...we are all connected by virtue of being flesh incarnate. We have one foot on the earth and one foot in the stars, we are all of us frail, dying,
impermanent. Not just the old...all of us.

At the same time -- and this is important -- the old have a lot going on in addition to the fact that they may be closer to death than the rest of us (think we) are. The old are often seen as the "other," we imagine that their lives are less interesting or nuanced or complex than our lives are, or, perhaps, complex in different (but less vital and fascinating ways). But if you know any old people, you probably know some old people who are wildly creative, who are falling in love, who are taking adventures, who are making difficult decisions about their changing lives, who are making their adult children angry because they are living their lives as they see fit. You probably also know some old people who aren't feeling well, who have reduced capacities, who are living in institutional environments, who aren't functioning in ways that seem optimal, and, yes, who are actively dying. At the end of the day, we are all precious human beings muddling our ways through this strange experience of being on this planet during this lifetime.

So perhaps a central principle of aging intentionally is to confront the deepest truth of our humanness as soon as possible, not waiting for tragedy to strike (illness, burnout, death of a parent, divorce, bankruptcy, etc.). This work is also about living in the present moment, which is all we have (as I said in an earlier post), and together, no matter what "age" we are and how our lives look.

David Rozell said...

Jenny, what a wonderfully thoughtful response. As you put it, confronting “the deepest truth of our humanness” is indeed one of the central aspects of intentional aging. I agree that this is a choice we can make at any age. I also wonder how our relationship with our mortality influences our relationship with “time”?

The future is a very wonderful part of aging. To those, of any age, who have become aware of the presence of “time” the future is more urgent. Until we acknowledge our mortality there seems like there is no urgency to life. However, for some there is an awareness that there is so much more to their life than what they have created till now. I see this in my coaching clients and certainly in the participants in the classes and workshops I attend or lead. These people come asking questions like "What's next?" and "How can I find more meaning?".

I think that having an illness or the death of someone close can change our relationship with mortality and thus our relationship with time and the future. People who have these experiences are more ready to be authentic, outrageous, and/or passionate about their lives. They want to be more involved; more alive; and honest than maybe they have ever been.

Maybe this is the legacy that the old will give to the young. To be passionate, to be ourselves, to be fun-loving, to be full of life, to speak the truth and yes maybe even a little “dangerously different”.

What a legacy that could be!