Of all the types of mental anguish that we humans work so hard to avoid, few are bigger or more persistent than the fear of death. The thought that you and I will someday cease to exist is simultaneously humbling and terrifying. The thought of death is humbling because we realize that while our loved ones may mourn us for a short period after we pass on, life will eventually go on just fine with or without either of us. The thought of death is also petrifying because it could come without warning and there is no playbook that tells any of us how the end will come before it does. Life can end peacefully in one’s sleep after a long well lived life full of love, accomplishments, and relative comfort, or it can end violently right after the pain of a serious car accident, a gunshot wound to the chest, or multiple rounds of chemotherapy and the devastating effect it can have on the body’s biochemistry. Regardless of how death comes to each of us, one thing is for sure… it will eventually visit each and every last one of us.
For the record, I agree with you… when we examine the reality of death with unforgiving clarity and honesty, it can be rather depressing on the surface. Whenever I read something pertaining to the reality of death or the ephemeral nature of life, it all seems a bit hopeless. Why try so hard to be good at anything or to anyone when we are all just going to die and cannot really take anything that we’ve struggled so hard to earn or create with us? Why deprive oneself of all those tasty cheeseburgers and ice cream sundaes in favor of relatively bland salads when we’re all basically in the process of deteriorating and eventually returning to the dust from which we came? While it is hard to fault this line of thinking on the surface, a deeper look at this train of thought reveals that the ephemeral nature of life and the inevitable finality of death should actually serve as a source of inspiration that infuses each of us with a sense of righteous urgency.
On the topic of using the inevitability of death as a motivational tool, the lives of two relatively well known luminaries come to mind as excellent examples – Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Steven Paul Jobs.
Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson grew up on the tough streets of southside Queens in New York City. He never got to know his father, and his mother died at a relatively young age due in part to the harshly ruthless nature of her trade. With both parents absent, Curtis was mostly raised by his loving grandmother and like many other households in the ghetto, they struggled to make ends meet. The relative lack of money and the associated struggle to survive that was a prominent part of his early life probably fueled Curtis’ intense desire to do whatever was necessary to break the cycle of poverty once he was old enough to do so. He eventually got involved in the drug scene in New York, selling crack cocaine to a variety of customers including prostitutes and drug fiends. Although his career as a crack cocaine dealer was immensely lucrative, it came with its fair share of trouble in the form of frequent violent confrontations and even some jail time. He eventually decided he’d had enough and transitioned to a career in music. Not long after that decision was made, disaster struck in the form a paid assassin who riddled his body with nine bullets… the intended kill shot piercing right through his jaw. Somehow, Curtis would miraculously survive this attempt on his life and live to continually tell the remarkable tale.
Through the intensely painful ordeal of being shot to within an inch of his life, Curtis gained a priceless new perspective – no matter who you are, nothing is promised. This realization gave him an enormous sense of urgency because he all of a sudden internalized the fact that death could come at any moment and thus, it was in his best interest to hurry up and do whatever he wanted to do with his life before the angel of death came calling again. After all, such a ridiculous instance of good fortune (surviving nine bullet wounds) wasn’t likely to repeat itself twice in one lifetime. All of this infused Curtis with an unprecedented surge of motivation to work at a furious pace. As soon as he had recovered well enough, he cut several tracks and orchestrated one of the most well executed mix tape campaigns in recent history. Before long, his music was being played all over the streets in New York city and eventually all over the world.
After his brush with death, Curtis morphed into the ultimate alchemist who excelled at transforming the dread and foreboding of death itself into motivational rocket fuel… his version of using the philosopher’s stone to transform base metals into gold. If only we could all follow in his footsteps and do as he did and continues to do.
As one of the main protagonists of the 20th century tech and computer industry boom, Apple co-founder Steven Paul Jobs was larger than life itself during his relatively short life. His remarkably colorful life story and career will forever be remembered in the pantheon of silicon valley folklore. My first real look at Steve Jobs the person was during the Stanford University commencement speech he gave in 2005 while I was still a student there. Strikingly, he possessed surprising humility as well as the confidence of a man who founded and served as the CEO of the most valuable technology company in the entire world.
Steve had it a bit difficult right from the start when he was given up by his biological parents for adoption. He was eventually adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs who raised him and cared for him as well as any biological parents could. As he grew up and matured over the years, the brevity of his time here on earth began to dawn on Steve.
For some reason that still isn’t quite clear, Steve deeply understood life’s fleeting nature from a very young age. Some of those who were close to Steve often said he had a deep foreboding feeling that he would die relatively young. Some of his closest friends even opined that his great fear of early death was actually what drove him to work so hard and accomplish a great deal relatively early on in life. His fear of early death eventually became his reality when he developed pancreatic cancer by the age of 48; for those of us who might not know, pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive and lethal forms of cancer. After his diagnosis, Steve had to have known that his time on earth had been severely cut short. Rather than sit around and mope at this, he ratcheted up his intensity at work to focus intently on creating as much as he could before the proverbial clock ran out. The rest as they say, is silicon valley history. In that eightish year span from his pancreatic cancer diagnosis till his death in October 2011, he inspired his team to a few major blockbuster products such as iPhone and iPad that changed the way people thought about computers and the computer industry.
Like Curtis did after his brush with death, Steve transformed the terrible news of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis into motivational rocket fuel that drove him to create amazing products in record time that would drive the collective consciousness of the human race forward.
In conclusion, one thing is clear and that is that death is the single common destination we all share. Death is the ultimate equalizer and it doesn’t pay much attention to how rich, beautiful, tall, or intelligent an individual may or may not be. We can fight him for as long as we want but father time is still undefeated, and will eventually come for us all. While the fact that we are all eventually destined to die can be a gravely depressing thought, it can also serve as a seriously motivating one. The impermanence of life should in fact inspire us to do everything we can to get the very most out of life. To really savor each moment that we are fortunate enough to have. To laugh heartily when you see or hear something funny… to cry passionately when things get too painful… to thoroughly enjoy the sight of a little child beaming with joy… to be thankful for the smell and taste of good food and wine… and to be grateful that your eyes and brain still allow you the luxury to comprehend the things you see.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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