On contemplating death: Book 21/24

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington (2014)

Book 21 - ThriveBefore I read this book, I knew of Arianna Huffington in connection with the Huffington Post, but that’s about all. I found out more about her on Gretchen Rubin’s “Happier” Podcast (Episode 65)  when she was talking about her new book The Sleep Revolution, which follows up on the information about sleep she presented in Thrive.

In the podcast, and in a similar interview with Dan Harris on his 10% Happier podcast, Ms Huffington speaks of having a wake-up call when she collapsed from exhaustion after working 18-hour days as well as being a mother to her two teenage daughters, and woke up in a pool of blood after fracturing her cheekbone and cutting her eye. This lead her down a path to reduce the stress in her life, cut back on work and sleep more.

In Thrive, Ms Huffington says that “over time our society’s notion of success has been reduced to money and power”. She says this can work in the short term, but over the long term she sees money and power by themselves as being like a two-legged stool, which is eventually going to fall over. Many successful people, she says, are now falling over.

She says that the way society has defined success is not sustainable, either for individuals or societies, and that to live the lives we truly want and deserve, we need a third measure of success that goes beyond money and power. She calls this the “Third Metric”, which is made up of four pillars: Well-Being, Wisdom, Wonder and Giving.

The book is made up of four sections about those themes, and Ms Huffington explores these themes through examining research, scholarship, her own personal experiences and experiences of others. Like in Big Magic, I didn’t find a lot of stuff that I hadn’t read about before, but I found the discussion in the chapter about Wonder on death and dying to be particularly moving and thought provoking, so I’m going to write a bit about what she says on this subject.

As we know, we’re all going to die. Whatever we believe happens to us after death, our life as we know it will eventually end.

Ms Huffington writes: “The closer death comes, the deeper we bury it, desperately putting machines and tubes and alarms and railings between us and the person stepping over to the other side of the mortality line. The medical machinery has the effect of making the person seem less human and therefore his or her fate less relevant to us . . . It allows us to not think about it, to put it off endlessly like something on our to-do lists we never quite get to.  . . . Rationally we know we’ll get to it – or run smack into it – eventually. But we figure we don’t need to deal with it until we really have to.
Why should we think about our death now? she asks. What good would it do us?

“A lot actually. In fact there may be no single thing that can teach us more about life than death. If we want to redefine what it means to live a successful life, we need to integrate into our daily lives the certainty of our death. Without no ‘dead’ there is no ‘alive’. . . . As soon as we’re born we’re also dying. The fact that our time is so limited is what makes it precious.”

Everything we accumulate in our lives, power, money, success, will be no more permanent than we are, she says (you can’t take it with you) and, while you can leave an inheritance to your children, you can also pass on “the shared experience of a fully lived life, rich in wisdom and wonder,” which seem to me like much more significant things to leave behind. “To truly redefine success,” writes Ms Huffington, “We need to redefine our relationship with death.”

She goes on to say that research has found that avoiding the reality of death leads people to hold onto customs and beliefs that contribute to stability (which makes sense to me). This includes identifying with groups based on race or gender or other attributes. It’s suggested that holding onto a group in this way can lessen our fear of death, because the group has an air of permanence, even if we we the individual are impermanent.

However, Ms Huffington writes, this holding on can be one explanation for things like racism and for ways in which we “demonise outsiders to glorify our own group.” She describes how the research (by Professor Todd Kashdan) found that mindful people who were willing to explore what’s happening in the present, even it it’s uncomfortable, tend to show less defensiveness when their sense of self is threatened by their own mortality. Professor Kashdan concluded that “mindfulness alters the power that death has over us”.

I found this to be one of the most interesting and powerful sections of the book, I guess because death isn’t something I think about too much. I was particularly moved by Ms Huffington’s description of the last day of her mother’s life, which she describes as “one of the most transcendent moments of [her own] life”. She writes that she keeps coming back to the lesson “don’t miss the moment”, which was her mother’s personal philosophy. The present moment, she writes, is the only place from which we can experience wonder.

She writes of maintaining a sense of wonder and curiosity, and says there are three basic practices that help her live more in the moment – the only place from which we can experience wonder:

1. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath for ten seconds whenever you feel tense, rushed or distracted. This allows you to become fully present in your life.

2. Pick an image that ignites joy in you. It can be of your child, a pet, the ocean, a painting that you love – something that inspires a sense of wonder. And any time you feel contracted, go to it to help you expand.

3. Forgive yourself for any judgements you are holding against yourself and then forgive your judgments of others. Then look at your life and the day ahead with newness and wonder.

“The only thing people regret,” she quotes English Poet Ted Hughes as having said, “is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” This brought to my mind several articles that have been published on the regrets of the dying, where on their death beds people don’t regret not working hard enough, but regret not having lived a life that was true to themselves and not having been braver, loved more, spoken up more and so on.

When I think about it, this is one of the reasons I’m doing the #yearoffear challenge – to start to get braver and do things I’ve been scared of doing, so that I don’t have as many regrets when my time comes.

That’s pretty heavy stuff! But I also got a lot more out of this book than just contemplating my own death; I even got a couple of new ideas for my #yearoffear challenge – so I’ve added them to the list.

Recommended.

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