Living a deep, intentional, fully present, values-aligned life is also one of the most pleasurable and satisfying things you can do in the face of your mortality.
If COVID-19 has offered us anything along the lines of hard-won wisdom, it’s a renewed sense of our own mortality. I’d bet that anyone reading this has lost someone you cared about to this virus, or you know someone who has.
As I’ve reflected on this, I keep coming back to one of the fundamental paradoxes of American culture. On the one hand, we do almost anything to avoid confronting mortality. We fear death and decay, and so we shun it, instead valuing youthfulness and often disregarding our elders, lest they remind us that, sooner or later, the bell will toll for us too. Yet at the very same time, so many of us live in ways that create ill health and harm for ourselves, for those on the margins, and for so many creatures in the more-than-human world. In some cosmic irony, denying death simply gives it that much more power.
As we begin to integrate the lessons of the pandemic, we have an amazing opportunity to flip this paradox on its head. I believe that if we can acknowledge mortality in wise and healthy ways, this will be tremendously life-giving, for us as individuals and as a society. We must give death its rightful place at the table of our life.
Gifts of Mortality
To integrate an awareness of death into our life means a lot of things, most of them beyond the scope of this column and probably beyond my scope as a writer. But I’d like to focus on two things that I’ve found helpful and that have really affected how I live my life.
The first gift of facing mortality is perspective. I’ve worked alongside vowed religious for my entire career, and I’ve come to admire deeply their practice of memento mori: intentionally recalling, every day, that you will die, that your time on earth is the briefest of moments against the backdrop of eternity. Contrary to what you might think, this doesn’t lead the monastics I know to be morbid and resigned.
If anything, it grounds them in gratitude for the precious time they do have. It offers them a strong dose of humility about their own accomplishments relative to the vast scale of deep time. It gives them an acute awareness of their connectedness to the great cloud of witnesses, who began their order’s work before them and will continue it long after they are gone.
Such a perspective isn’t unique to monastic communities. In my family, my mom has lived for many years with incurable cancer. That has been difficult, but it has also given us an amazing gift of cherishing the time we have together, however long or short it ends up being. And it’s a small step from cherishing an all-too-brief human life (our own or that of someone we care about) to cherishing all life within our common home.
Another gift of facing mortality is the opportunity to become very intentional about our habits. If our lives really are so brief, don’t we want to spend them in the best way possible, focused on the most important things? And isn’t a well-lived life largely the aggregation of our daily choices and habits? As the writer Annie Dillard pointed out, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
One of the geniuses of Catholicism in general, and monastic life in particular, is the insight that our character is shaped in profound ways by our rituals. The monastics I’ve known don’t tend
(or expect) to wander around in a cloud of religious ecstasy. Instead, they adopt practical ways to structure their time that help them avoid the pitfalls of overwork, media bingeing, physical and mental sloth, narcissism, and so forth.
The Power of Habits
The Benedictines, with whom I worked for 15 years, have in their Rule the directive for a well-ordered life, with predictable daily routines, including time for communal and individual prayer, reading and reflection, manual labor and craft, recreation and leisure. Such habits don’t make for perfect monks, but to use Catholic Worker Peter Maurin’s phrase, they do make it “easier for people to be good.” And most of these monastic practices can be adapted for the rest of us. We can craft our days in ways that support a deep and worthy life, however long or brief.
Such structured and predictable habits may seem (and can certainly be) stultifying and boring, and some people are far better suited to a more planned, regimented life than others. However, to the degree that I’ve established healthy rhythms and rituals in my life, I have actually found them to be freeing. Habits can change from day to day as circumstances require and can evolve over time, but having them in place both pushes me to embody the values I say I want my life to be about and assures me that I am making a reasonable effort to do so.
I always need to remind myself that as important as good habits are, we don’t chisel ourselves into perfection through our routines.
We may plant and tend the garden of our life, but, ultimately, our growth is up to God. That helps me forgive myself when I inevitably and repeatedly fail, and to trust that if I just keep showing up, God will form me into a person who is more and more capable of love and depth, who can face death with courage, when- ever it comes, knowing that all shall be well.
Living a deep, intentional, fully present, values-aligned life is also one of the most pleasurable and satisfying things you can do in the face of your mortality. It will save your soul, and it will save our common life on this beloved planet.
- If you live to be 80, you will be alive for a mere 4,000 weeks. For a thoughtful reflection on how facing mortality can help you craft those weeks with intentionality, check out Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.
- Time is a nonrenewable resource, so budget it carefully and spend it wisely on activities in
the areas of your life that really matter. I like Cal Newport’s taxonomy of the 4Cs: community (family, friends, etc.); craft/work (work and quality leisure); constitution (mental and physical health); and contemplation (matters of the soul).