Deathbed Clarity

“As one approaches the end, one begins to see life as it truly is” — Hercule Poroit

Imminent death and near-death experiences can bring great clarity. It is often only in times of crisis or loss, what have been referred to as mortality moments[i], that the veil is lifted, allowing us to see the truth. In the War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes about the moment of clarity that accompanies a cancer diagnosis -“The moment a person learns he’s got terminal cancer, a profound shift takes place in his psyche. At one stroke in the doctor’s office he becomes aware of what really matters to him. Things that sixty seconds earlier had seemed all-important suddenly appear meaningless, while people and concerns that he had till then dismissed at once take on supreme importance. Maybe, he realizes, working this weekend on that big deal at the office isn’t all that vital. Maybe it’s more important to fly cross-country for his grandson’s graduation. Maybe it isn’t so crucial that he have the last word in the fight with his wife. Maybe instead he should tell her how much she means to him and how deeply he has always loved her.”

In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying[ii], palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware recounts the deathbed regrets of those she cared for. Topping the list is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. … This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.” Entrepreneur Paul Graham[iii] points out that these regrets stem from mistakes of mission so he “inverts” them as a set of positive commandments — “Don’t ignore your dreams; don’t work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy.”

Perhaps the most common cause for regret is the delusion that we have more time. Paramedic Matthew O’Reilly[iv] recounts assisting people who were dying and who had a deep need to know that their life had meaning, that “they need to know that they did not waste their life on meaningless tasks”. In one case he encountered a woman lay dying after a car accident who recounted “there was so much more that I wanted to do with my life”.

By taking the time to think deeply about what is truly important, it may not be necessary to reach death or be diagnosed with a serious illness. Sometimes a change in perspective can provide clarity.

The Rocking Chair Test asks us to imagine being our final years sitting in a rocking chair and reflecting on our life. This perspective shift can be a compelling way to change direction. In the words of Mark Twain “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did”.

Anthony Robbins describes a technique called the Dickens Pattern which is based on Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic story A Christmas Carol. The ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s partner Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come all visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused’’ and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge what will happen if he doesn’t change his ways. Scrooge is shown his own funeral and falls to the ground distraught, crying out “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”. In the same way this technique asks questions which force us to reflect on the costs of continuing on our current path, in particular our beliefs -

1. What has each belief cost us in the past, and what has it cost people we’ve loved in the past? What have we lost because of this belief?

2. What is each costing us and the people we care about in the present?

3. What will each cost us and people we care about 1, 3, 5, and 10 years from now?

Speaker Les Brown implores listeners to think about the end of their own lives — “Imagine if you will being on your death bed — and standing around your bed — the ghosts of the ideas, the dreams, the abilities, the talents given to you by life. And that you for whatever reason, you never acted on those ideas, you never pursued that dream, you never used those talents, we never saw your leadership, you never used your voice, you never wrote that book. And there they are standing around your bed looking at you with large angry eyes saying ‘we came to you, and only you could have given us life! Now we must die with you forever.’ The question is — if you die today, what ideas, what dreams, what abilities, what talents, what gifts, would die with you?”.

Brazilian businessman Ricardo Semler[v] describes his idea of “terminal days” — “On Mondays and Thursdays, I learn how to die. I call them my terminal days. . . one day I could be sitting in front of a doctor who looks at my exams and says, ‘Ricardo, things don’t look very good. You have six months or a year to live.’ And you start thinking about what you would do with this time. And you say, ‘I’m going to spend more time with the kids. I’m going to visit these places. I’m going to go up and down mountains and places, and I’m going to do the things I didn’t do when I had the time. But of course, we know these are very bittersweet memories we’re going to have. It’s going to be very difficult to do. You spend a good part of the time crying, probably. So I said, I’m going to do something else. Every Monday and Thursday, I’m going to use my terminal days. And I will do, during those days, whatever it is I was going to do if I received that piece of news.

Steve Jobs provided a poignant example of this clarity whilst addressing students at Stanford in 2005[vi]- “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

[i] The Death Bed Game, Medium June 2013, Buster Benson

[ii] The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, Bronnie Ware

[iii] http://www.paulgraham.com/todo.html

[iv] Am I dying? The honest answer, Mathew O’Reilly, TED July 2014

[v] How to run a company with (almost) no rules, Ricardo Semler, TED October 2014

[vi] Stanford Commencement Address, June 2005. In the speech Jobs recounts that he had recently been confronted with a cancer diagnosis but following surgery was given a clean bill of health. Unfortunately Jobs’ illness subsequently returned and he passed away in October 2011 at the age of 56.

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