I know it seems morbid on one’s day of birth (which is today, April 2, for me) to write about a “death day.” Why think such dreary thoughts when you don’t know when you will die? Why not just celebrate the day you entered this world, although in some traditions life itself is a time of suffering not celebration.
The simple truth is that we begin to die the moment we begin to live, whether as a fetus or a fully developed infant. Death is such a natural part of life that it amazes me most of us spend a great deal of time denying it. It was as if we really thought death was something that happened to other people, not us. And sadly, we fail to learn the message of Plato when he was asked to summarize his philosophy: “Practice dying,” he said. There’s deeper meaning in his thought about practicing dying than just “carpe diem,” or “seize the day” by doing forbidden things while you can. What Plato meant, I believe, was to realize that most of our lives we are dying, losing, rather than gaining, and thus we ought to take care of our bodies, minds, and souls so as to live full lives.
It may seem strange to practice dying, but there is a great wisdom here in these words. If we truly practice dying it means we do take one day at a time, but that may be all we have. And in taking one day at a time we learn to let go of our fears and accept whatever comes. This wisdom is taught in many traditions other than Plato’s, from Buddha’s thought that we ought to let go of our craving desire to exist and train our minds to the admonition of Jesus: “What does is profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his (or her)own soul?”
So if today were my death day, what would I do? I would get up, have breakfast, dress, walk, and look outside my window to see the sun rising. In other words, I would stay close to the ordinary, because the ordinary rituals of my life are what I value most. And “where your heart is, there shall your treasure be also” (Jesus). If this were my death day I would want to read a poem, stay with family and friends, take my dog for a walk, maybe teach a class, read, and sit down to a cup of coffee. Is it any wonder than when someone asked him whether he was a god or man, the Buddha said he was neither. “Then what are you?” the questioner asked. “I am awake,” responded Buddha.
I would like to stay awake on my death date, not frantically worrying about what comes next or even what I have done wrong, but quietly leaving the planet knowing I had grown a soul and changed for the better, and possibly even left something behind of worth–and then leave this dimension to awake in another or sleep forever, I don’t know which. But like Socrates I won’t be afraid. And this is a hard won wisdom.