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February 3, 2015

My Birthday Blog: Why Death is My Greatest Teacher

It’s my big 47 this year! And with each year clicking away, I feel like they go faster and faster. I think this increased tempo is by design; it helps us in our effort of living in the present moment and in celebrating how precious each day is.

The idea of turning 47 brings with it the reality that my human experience is half over. Each birthday, perhaps this one even more, I like to spend time recounting a year-end, and even lifetime, review. A major piece of this is looking at the areas in which I have grown while also looking at the aspects of my life that are still in need of growth.

Looking back, I realize that for the first 25-30 years of life, we really do live with the believe that we are immortal. The teenage years in particularity, looking back both at my own life as well as seeing my children’s thoughts now, are filled with the idea that we are truly invincible, death hardly ever entering our minds.

As is part of the cycle of life, the magic of aging does come knocking around 30. At this time, most people begin to more fully understand the gifts life truly bears, lessons resulting from wisdom gained after having come upon and overcome many obstacles, and learning the valuable lesson of friendship by remembering those that have come and gone and those that have literally stood the test of time. Rebounding from failure and understanding relationships are both incredible lessons that we learn from positive life moments as well as from very hurtful ones.

Nonetheless, I would have to say to date my greatest gift/teacher is Death. Death, an idea that has been personified through so many incredible works of literature and out of the mouth of all our great philosophers, pushes us to look upon our past, questioning what parts were meaningful, and what parts we would rather cut from the filmstrip of our life story.

I have realized that the times in which I showed compassion and forgiveness to others have been my greatest moments of growth; helping the less fortunate and showing them love and kindness have been my most meaningful experiences. There is an older woman I often see at our community butcher. At first, I would smile and we would exchange a few words, but then it became conversations. I could tell one day that she was upset, after my asking, I discovered her husband was in the hospital. With a hug and a promise of prayers, we said our goodbyes. Upon seeing her the next week, I immediately asked about her husband’s health; she was so taken aback that I remembered and thought to ask. This reminded me how few people engage with others these days; we are too busy looking at our phones or checking our style with the woman next to us to speak to others. But these material possessions don’t come to heaven with us, as so beautifully described by Anne Bradstreet in her poem “Upon the Burning of our house;” our relationships and memories, on the other hand, do make the journey. My brief conversations with my nameless friend will stay both with her and with me.

God will not be impressed by the car I drove or the purse I carried. Such thoughts, thoughts brought to me by Death, challenge me to want to live my life as my most authentic-self, my life’s purpose being the constant focus. I believe that we need to be actively alive, and by actively, I mean engaging with others and always working to better ourselves. As Mary Oliver said, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Likewise, on my deathbed, I can’t see myself being concerned with what someone else thought of me. Rather, I think I would have great remorse if I looked back and realized I lived my life concerned with how others wanted me to live, or recognizing that I had been overly cautious in each step taken on my journey as to not be thought of as strange.

No, in death, I think we will feel proud of the times we showed courage, not concerning ourselves by worrying what others thought of us. I believe that when Death comes to us, God will have one question as we stand at the gates of heaven, and it will be: “How much did you love?” In this question, He will be asking about our love for our children, spouse, family, and friends.

More specifically, I believe He will question our love for others during times when it was difficult to love them, for these were the moments in which we gained the best lessons we can ever learn in how to love. When the loving doesn’t come easy or is challenging, those are the times in which I believe God smiles the brightest.

Actionable step: Use your birthday as a day to review your year. I have provided some questions to help in this effort.

1. What situations or moments in my life am I the most proud of?
2. Where did I choose forgiveness over revengeful thoughts or holding a grudge? What was the result of this decision to love?
3. What was I doing when I was the most fulfilled?
4. How did I show up as a gift to someone?

I have found journaling about these topics to be most advantageous; journaling helps guide my next year of life by putting more time and energy toward the things that brought me the most fulfillment, happiness, and peace.

Though each birthday brings us closer to death, it also gives us a chance to try again to love and grow in the best ways possible.