I was sitting in the grey IKEA wingback in the corner of The Local when the door opened, the sun broke through clouds, and my heart warmed as a smile flooded me.
My dear friend and mentor hadn’t come to the coffee shop to meet me, but that didn’t prevent us from sharing a huge hug and talking for a good half hour before his appointment arrived.
“What are you up to?” I asked him.
“I’m meeting some folks about teaching a class in a couple weeks,” he said.
Not surprising—teaching classes, running workshops, facilitating meetings, giving talks—that was his wheelhouse.
“What’s the topic?”
“Death and dying.”
“Wow,” I said, “That’s intense.”
“Yep, there’s not many topics more important. Death is part of life and it’s not something we talk about enough. But…” he added with a laugh, “who better to teach it than someone who’s dying, right?”
That was two years ago. Christopher’s gone now.
We weren’t related, there were decades of distance between our ages, and lately, we had only connected every few months, but no doubt I lost one of the most important people in my life October 2017.
At the request of his family, I wrote a story about his life where I talked about the image of Chris’s life as a gift that he fully used up in his generosity.
Death is part of life.
An essential part of life.
It’s something we know inherently yet accept grudgingly, haltingly, stubbornly.
In 1988, PBS produced a Bill Moyers interview of Joseph Campbell, arguably the world’s leading researcher on myth. It’s powerful, enlightening, and constantly thought-provoking from beginning to end. From that interview, the two published The Power of Myth, which is primarily derived from transcriptions from that interview. Here’s one excerpt:
CAMPBELL: Life is, in its very essence and character, a terrible mystery—this whole business of living by killing and eating.
[In the filmed discussion, there is an aside here about how even vegans are "living by killing and eating" because plants are living, too.]
CAMPBELL: But it is a childish attitude to say "no" to life with all its pain, to say that this is something that should not have been.
MOYERS: Zorba says, “Trouble? Life is trouble.”
CAMPBELL: Only death is no trouble. People ask me, “Do you have optimism about the world?” And I say, “Yes, it’s great just the way it is. And you are not going to fix it up. Nobody has ever made it any better. It is never going to be any better. This is it, so take it or leave it. You are not going to correct or improve it.”
I don’t necessarily agree with the nihilistic absolutism of “it’s never going to be any better”, but Campbell doesn’t quite either. He later talks about how the struggle to change the world is the hero’s journey that we each must take in life, only to find that we are the ones who are truly changed in the process.
Nonetheless it’s a startling thought to consider: When it comes to the most powerful force in our life—death—we have absolutely no power whatsoever.
In Death and Life, Arthur McGill says Americans “devote themselves to expunging from their lives every appearance, every intimation of death… All traces of weakness, debility, ugliness, and helplessness must be kept away from every part of a person’s life.”
The power that death has over us is such an overwhelming and terrifying notion. No wonder we’d want to completely avoid thinking about it.
But regardless of whether we choose to think about it, there are moments when life will shove it right back in our faces.
In one of my favorite novels, Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood , Watanabe experiences this realization:
Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life. Translated into words, it’s a cliché, but at the time I felt it not as words but as that knot of air inside me. Death exists—in a paperweight, in four red and white balls on a billiard table—and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust.
Until that time, I had understood death as something entirely separate from and independent of life. The hand of death is bound to take us, I had felt, but until the day it reaches out for us, it leaves us alone. This had seemed to me the simple, logical truth. Life is here, death is over there. I am here, not over there.
The night Kizuki died, however, I lost the ability to see death (and life) in such simple terms. Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. When it took the seventeen-year-old Kizuki that night in May, death took me as well.
It’s not cheery in the slightest, is it? He nails it though: it’s much easier to stay in the view that life is here and death is over there. But it’s just not the truth.
And death has a way of reminding us of its presence.
Researchers on the psychology of disgust have pointed out that many of the things that we find disgusting—blood, saliva, wounds, rotting things—have as a core part of their root a wish to deny the ever-presence of death in our life and the reality that we, too, will fully decay.
Humanity’s stubborn propensity to eventually quit breathing isn’t the only way we experience death in our life. We also experience a hundred thousand deaths in our lives in the form of weakness, wounding, and failure. And we end up recoiling from or shamefully wishing to hide those things in ourselves and others, too.
As a young man, Jürgen Moltmann was drafted into the Nazi army in WWII, ordered to the front line, and surrendered to British soldiers at the first opportunity.
Moltmann claimed to have lost all hope and confidence in German culture because of Auschwitz and Buchenwald (concentration camps where Jews and others the Nazis opposed had been imprisoned and killed)… Moltmann claimed his remorse was so great, he often felt he would have rather died along with many of his comrades than live to face what their nation had done. (Wikipedia)
Moltmann spent the rest of his life painfully wrestling with the horrors Germany had inflicted. Like others, he draws a direct connection between the holocaust and the desire for Germany to recover its glory after WWI reparations decimated its economy and national pride. In Moltmann’s work, he explores the connection between our relationship to death and the injustice and apathy of our societies.
The one-sided orientation toward accomplishment and success makes us unjust and inhuman in our dealings with others. We exclude the sick, the [disabled], the unaccomplished, and the unsuccessful from public life. Also politically we have to pay dearly for the gods of work and success. We have an "apartheid" society. It may not in every case give formally recognized privileges to the whites over against the blacks, as in South Africa, but it does give privileges to the healthy and capable over the [disabled] and the weak. Instead of an open and vulnerable society, we have a closed and unassailable society with apathetic structures. The living, open, vulnerable life is poured into steel and concrete.
What do we lose by trying to compartmentalize death? Justice, openness and vulnerability, the ability to accept weakness and failure.
In my personal and professional life, I have experienced my share of failure. I’ve been honest and public enough about it that I once received an email criticizing me for “wearing failure as if it was a badge of honor.” The criticism is probably fair from an external vantage point, but I certainly don’t see it that way in the way I live and process through my life. I have simply come to embrace that I am an experiential learner and nearly everything I’ve ever learned has come from pain and failure.
When it comes to material possessions, it really bothers me to own things that aren’t getting used in some way. As such, I’m pretty quick to loan things out or give them away. And I see my failure just the same. Some folks are better at learning from others’ failures than I am. Others have their own experiences which they are growing through. If there’s something in my pain and failure that could be useful or beneficial to others, then just like anything else of mine, I’d like to see it get used rather than sit on a shelf.
One of my greatest senses of loss comes from failures I never got the chance to understand and learn from. There’s so much value to gain from the mistakes we make! Most of who I am, my habits, my principles, my beliefs comes from the process of making and learning from mistakes.
Later on in the same work, Moltmann continues the previous thought, connecting the idea of living with passion directly to living with the acceptance of pain and death being part of life—pointing out that passion literally means suffering and that it’s impossible to have meaningful passion in life without also accepting the pain that life brings with it.
That is the modern death called apathy: life without suffering (leiden), life without passionate feeling (leidenschaft)…. Apathy is a terrible temptation. Promising to spare us death, it in fact takes away our life. It spreads the rigor of corpses and concrete around itself. Love makes life a passion, a matter of passionate devotion and readiness to suffer.
Probably the most well-trod notion in philosophy is that there’s wisdom to be gained from the simple observation of how nature works. There’s no escaping that death and decay are essential for new growth. The most fertile soil is literally reeking with death and decay. The people we often respect most for their wisdom and kindness have made mistakes and experienced tremendous pain and hardship.
Bridging directly to Moltmann’s thoughts here, one of my favorite thinkers, Dee Hock, points out a profound irony: the fullest and most authentic life comes from living in a way that acknowledges and embraces death, accepting our lack of control and our complete inability to prevent loss and pain:
What would it be like to be the possessor of total, infinite, absolute control? The first thought is that it would be akin to being a god, at least as gods are normally perceived.
With a good deal more thought and more intuition, it hit me like a bolt from the blue. It would be death. Absolute, perfect control is in the coffin. Control requires denial of life. Life is uncertainty, surprise, hate, wonder, speculation, love, joy, pity, pain, mystery, beauty, and a thousand other things we can’t imagine.
Life is not about control. It’s not about getting. It’s not about having. It’s not about knowing. It’s not even about being. Life is eternal, perpetual becoming, or it is nothing. Becoming is not a thing to be known, commanded, or controlled. It is a magnificent, mysterious odyssey to be experienced.
Death is part of life.
I am forever awed by the new life that comes from death, the growth that comes from decay, the new opportunity that comes from loss, the evolution that is spurred on by the cycle of life and death.
I’ve laid off and let go people I cared about deeply, and I have had people move on to new opportunities that were right for them. I still feel the jarring pain of each one of those moments and decisions as vividly as if they just happened—some bittersweet, some just painful. I’ve gained friends and colleagues and lost them, and regained some again, but in completely new ways.
In the decade &yet has existed, there have been at least a dozen versions of it as an organization that have died, rotted, and given birth to the seeds of new life which were buried alongside the prior generations.
There’s some who’ve grazed and migrated through—some who loved it, some who hated it. Others who’ve built a nest and stuck around through some long winters. Then there’s the old growth forest of folks who’ve been around a long time, even surviving a couple forest fires.
In business and in life, we must accept that every wonderful thing we have in hand today can be taken away from us tomorrow. This is sure reason to live in celebration and gratitude for every good thing we have.
Most especially the people.
We live in such a polarized time: politically, socially, and even relationally. People are painted as angels or trashed as demons based on one-dimensional snapshots. It’s as though we’re perennially tasked with separating the sheep from the goats.
One of my mentors once said, "We put people on pedestals because it makes it easier to knock them off." But the fact is almost no one deserves a pedestal in the first place. I know I don’t and I doubt you do either. (Heck, I’d rather be pedestrian than a pedestallian.)
No doubt there are good people and there are objectively evil people, but the overwhelming majority of us are messy and complex and doing our best. Love people, work with people, get close to people, and you’re gonna hurt and get hurt. We’re all trying to live our lives and pursue our aims and get our own needs met in different ways, and sometimes the things we seek are at odds with what others are looking for.
The societal tendency is to categorize people. One is life and one is death: keep them separate. The fact is that there’s life and death present in every person, every relationship, every moment.
Our personal soil is filled with the mini-death and decay of failure and loss and pain and heartache. We choose in each instant whether to use such soil as fertilizer for new growth or to bury the lives around us.
But we can’t separate our life from death.
We’re always choosing how we use our life’s ever-present death, whether we acknowledge it or not.