And Then You Die



And Then You Die

Seek the truth for yourself, and I will meet you there."

That was the last thing Josh ever said to me. He said it ironically, attempting to sound deep while simultaneously making fun Of people who attempt to sound deep. He was drunk and high. And he was a good friend.

The most transformational moment Of my life occurred when I was nineteen years Old. My friend Josh had taken me to a party on a lake just north Of Dallas, Texas. There were condos on a hill and below the hill was a pool, and below the pool was a cliff overlooking the lake. It was a small cliff, maybe thirty feet high—certainly high enough to give you a second thought about jumping, but low enough that with the right combination of alcohol and peer pressure that second thought could easily vanish.

Shortly after arriving at the party, Josh and I sat in the pool together, drinking beers and talking as young angsty males do. We talked drinking and bands and girls and all Of the cool stuff Josh had done that summer since dropping out of music school. We talked about playing in a band together and moving to New York City—an impossible dream at the time.

We were just kids.

"Is it Okay to jump Off that?" I asked after a while, nodding toward the cliff over the lake. "Yeah," Josh said, do it all the time here." "Are you going to do it?" He shrugged. "Maybe. We'll see."

Later in the evening, Josh and I got separated. I had become distracted by a prety Asian girl who liked video games, which to me, as a teenage nerd, was akin to winning the lottery. She had no interest in me, but she was friendly and happy to let me talk, so I talked. After a few beers, I gathered enough courage to ask her to go up to the house with me to get some food. She said sure.

As we walked up the hill, we bumped into Josh coming down. I asked him if he wanted food, but he declined. I asked him where I could find him later on. He smiled and said, "Seek the truth for yourself. and I will meet vou there!"

I nodded and made a serious face. "Okay, I'll see you there," I replied, as if everyone knew exactly where the truth was and how to get to it.

Josh laughed and walked down the hill toward the cliff. I laughed and continued up the hill toward the house.

I don't remember how long I was inside. I just remember that when the girl and I came Out again, everyone was gone and there were sirens. The was empty. People were running down the hill toward the shoreline below the cliff. There were Others already down by the water. I could make Out a couple guys swimming around. It was dark and hard to see. The music droned on, but nobody listened.

Still not putting two-and-two together, I hurried down to the shoreline, gnawing on my sandwich, curious as to what everyone was looking at. Halfway down, the pretty Asian girl said to me, "I think something terrible has happened."

When I got to the bottom of the hill, I asked someone where Josh was. No one looked at me or acknowledged me. Everyone stared at the water. I asked again, and a girl started crying uncontrollably.

That's when I put two-and-two together.

It took scuba divers three hours to find Josh's body at the bottom of the lake. The autopsy would later say that his legs had up due to dehydration from the alcohol, as well as to the impact Of the jump from the cliff. It was dark out when he went in, the water layered on the night, black on black. NO one could see where his screams for help were coming from. Just the splashes. Just the sounds. His parents later told me that he was a terrible swimmer. I'd had no idea.

It took me twelve hours to let myself cry. I was in my car, driving back home to Austin the next morning. I called my dad and told him that I was still near Dallas and that I was going to miss work. (I'd been working for him that summer.) He asked, "Why; what happened? Is everything all right?" And that's when it all came Out: the waterworks. The wails and the screams and the snot. I pulled the car over to the side Of the road and clutched the phone and cried the way a little boy cries to his father.

I went into a deep depression that summer. I thought I'd been depressed before, but this was a whole new level of meaninglessness—sadness so deep that it physically hurt. People would come by and try to cheer me up, and I would sit there and hear them say all the right things and do all the right things; and I would tell them thank you and how nice it was of them to come over, and I would fake a smile and lie and say that it was getting better, but underneath I just felt nothing.

I dreamed about Josh for a few months after that. Dreams where he and I would have full-blown conversations about life and death, as well as about random, pointless things. Up until that point in my life, I had been a pretty typical middle-class stoner kid: lazy, irresponsible, socially anxious, and deeply insecure. Josh, in many ways, had been a person I looked up to. He was Older, more confident, more and more accepting of and open to the world around him. In one of my last dreams Of Josh, I was sitting in a Jacuzzi with him (yeah, I know, weird), and I said something like, "I'm really sorry you died." He laughed. I don't remember exactly what his words were, but he said something like, "Why do you care that I'm dead when you're still so afraid to live?" I woke up crying.

It was sitting on my mom's couch that summer, staring into the so-called abyss, seeing endless and incomprehensible nothingness where Josh's friendship used to be, when I came to the startling realization that if there really is no reason to do anything, then there is also no reason to not do anything; that in the face of the inevitability Of death, there is no reason to ever give in to one's fear or embarrassment or shame, since it's all just a bunch Of nothing anyway; and that by spending the majority of my short life avoiding what was painful and uncomfortable, I had essentially been avoiding being alive at all.

That summer, I gave up the weed and the cigarettes and the video games. I gave up my silly rock Star fantasies and dropped out of music school and signed up for college courses. I started going to the gym and lost a bunch Of weight. I made new friends. I got my first girlfriend. For the first time in my life I actually studied for classes, gaining me the startling realization that I could make good grades if only I gave a shit The next Summer, I challenged myself to read fifty nonfiction books in fifty days, and then did it. The following year, I transferred to an excellent university on the other side Of the country, where I excelled for the first time, both academically and socially.

Josh's death marks the clearest before/after point I can identify in my life. Pre-tragedy, I was inhibited, unambitious, forever obsessed and confined by what I imagined the world might be thinking Of me. Post-tragedy, I morphed into a new person: responsible, curious,hardworking. I still had my insecurities and my baggage—as we always do—but now I gave a fuck about something more important than my insecurities and my baggage. And that made all the difference. Oddly, it was someone else's death that gave me permission to finally live. And perhaps the worst moment of my life was also the most transformational.
Death scares us. And because it scares us, we avoid thinking about it, talking about it, sometimes even acknowledging it, even when it's happening to someone close to us.
Yet, in a bizarre, backwards way, death is the light by which the shadow Of all Of life's meaning is measured. Without death, everything would feel inconsequential, all experience arbitrary, all metrics and values suddenly zero.

Something Beyond Our Selves
Ernest Becker was an academic outcast. In 1960, he got his PhD. in anthropology; his doctoral research compared the unlikely and unconventional practices Of Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis. At the time, Zen was seen as something for hippies and drug addicts, and Freudian psychoanalysis was considered a quack form Of psychology left over from the Stone Age.
In his first job as an assistant professor, Becker quickly fell into a crowd that denounced the practice Of psychiatry as a form Of fascism. They saw the practice as an unscientific form Of oppression against the weak and helpless.
The problem was that Becker 's boss was a psychiatrist. so it was kind Of like walking into your first job and proudly comparing your boss to Hider.
As you can imagine, he was fired.
So Becker took his radical ideas somewhere that they might be accepted: Berkeley, California. But this, too, didn't last long.
Because it wasn't just his anti-establishment tendencies that got Becker into trouble; it was his odd teaching methods as well. He would use Shakespeare to teach psychology, psychology textbooks to teach anthropology, and anthropological data to teach sociology. He'd dress up as King Lear and do mock sword fights in class and go on long political rants that had little to do with the lesson plan. His students adored him. The Other faculty loathed him. Less than a year later, he was fired again.
Becker then landed at San Francisco State University, where he actually kept his job for more than a year. But when student protests erupted over the Vietnam War, the university called in the National Guard and things got violent. When Becker sided with the students and publicly condemned the actions of the dean (again, his boss being Hitleresque and everything), he was, once again, promptly fired.
Becker changed jobs four times in six years. And before he could get fired from the fifth, he got colon cancer. The prognosis was grim. He spent the next few years bedridden and had little hope of surviving. so Becker decided to write a book. This book would be about death.
Becker died in 1974. His book The Denial of Death, would win the Pulitzer Prize and become one Of the most influential intellectual works Of the twentieth century, shaking up the fields Of psychology and anthropology, while making profound philosophical claims that are still influential today.

The Denial Of Death essentially makes two points:
1. Humans are unique in that we're the only animals that can conceptualize and think about ourselves abstractly. Dogs don't sit around and worry about their career. Cats don't think about their past mistakes or wonder what would have happened if they'd done something differently. Monkeys don't argue over future possibilities, just as fish don't sit around wondering if other fish would like them more if they had longer fins.
As humans, we're blessed with the ability to imagine ourselves in hypthetical situations, to contemplate both the past and the future, to imagine Other realities or situations where things might different. And it's because of this unique mental ability, Becker says, that we all, at some point, aware Of the inevitability Of our own death. Because we're able to conceptualize alternate versions Of reality, we are also the only animal capable of imagining a reality without ourselves in it.
This realization causes what Becker calls "death terror," a deep existential anxiety that underlies everything we think or do.
2. Becker's second point starts with the premise that we essentially have two "selves." The first self is the physical self—the one that eats, sleeps, snores, and poops. The second self is our conceptual self—our identity, or how we see ourselves.
Becker's argument is this: We are all aware on some level that our physical self will eventually die, that this death is inevitable, and that its inevitability—on some unconscious level—scares the shit out of us. Therefore, in order to compensate for our fear of the inevitable loss of our physical self, we try to Construct a conceptual self that will live forever. This is why people try so hard to put their names on buildings, on statues, on spines of books. It's why we feel compelled to spend so much time giving ourselves to others, especially to children, in the hopes that our influence—our conceptual self—will last way beyond our physical self. That we will be remembered and revered and idolized long after our physical self ceases to exist.

Becker called such efforts our "immortality projects," projects that allow our conceptual self to live on way past the point Of our physical death. All Of human civilization, he says, is basically a result of immortality projects: the cities and governments and structures and authorities in place today were all immortality projects Of men and women who came before us. They are the remnants of conceptual selves that ceased to die. Names like Jesus, Muhammad, Napoleon, and Shakespeare are just as powerful today as when those men lived, if not more so. And that's the whole point. Whether it be through mastering an art form, conquering a new land, gaining great riches, or simply having a large and loving family that will live on for generations, all the meaning in our life is shaped by this innate desire to never truly die.
Religion, politics, sports, art, and technological innovation are the result of people's immortality projects. Becker argues that wars and revolutions and mass murder occur when one group of people's immortality projects rub up against another group's. Centuries Of oppression and the bloodshed Of millions have been justified as the defense Of one group's immortality project against another 's.
But, when our immortality projects fail, when the meaning is lost, when the prospect of our conceptual self outliving our physical self no longer Seems possible Or likely, death terror—that horrible, depressing anxiety—creeps back into our mind. Trauma can cause this, as can shame and social ridicule. As can, as Becker points out, mental illness.
If you haven't figured it out yet, our immortality projects are our values. They are the barometers Of meaning and worth in our life. And when our values fail, so do we, psychologically speaking. What Becker is saying, in essence, is that we're all driven by fear to give way too many fucks something, because giving a fuck about something is the only thing that distracts us from the reality and inevitability Of Our own death. And to truly not give a single fuck is to achieve a quasi-spiritual state of embracing the impermanence of one's own existence. In that state, one is far less likely to get caught up in various forms of entitlement.

Becker later came to a startling realization on his deathbed: that people's immortality projects were actually the problem, not the solution; that rather than attempting to implement, Often through lethal force, their conceptual self across the world, people should question their conceptual self and become more comfortable with the reality Of their own death. Becker called this "the bitter antidote," and struggled with reconciling it himself as he stared down his Own demise. While death is bad, it is inevitable. Therefore, we should not avoid this realization, but rather come to terms with it as best we can. Because once we become comfortable with the fact of our own death—the root terror, the underlying anxiety motivating all of life's frivolous ambitions—we can then choose our values more freely, unrestrained by the illogical quest for immortality, and freed from dangerous dogmatic views.

The Sunny Side of Death
I step from rock to rock, climbing steadily, leg muscles stretching and aching. In that trancelike state that comes from slow, repetitive physical exertion, I'm nearing the top. The sky gets wide and deep. I'm alone now. My friends are far below me, taking pictures of the ocean.
Finally, I climb over a small boulder and the view opens up. I can see from here to the infinite horizon. It feels as though I'm staring at the edge of the earth, where water meets the sky, blue on blue. The wind screams across my skin. 1100k up. It's bright. It's beautiful.
I'm at South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, once thought to be the southern tip Of Africa and the southernmost point in the world. It's a tumultuous place, a place full Of storms and treacherous waters. A place that's seen centuries of trade and commerce and human endeavor. A place, ironically, of lost hopes.
There is a saying in Portuguese: Ele dobra o Cabo da Boa Esperanca. It means, "He's rounding the Cape of Good Hope." Ironically, it means that the person's life is in its final phase, that he's incapable Of accomplishing anything more.

I Step across the rocks toward the blue, allowing its vastness to engulf my field Of vision. I'm sweating yet cold. Excited yet nervous. Is this it?
The wind is slapping my ears. I hear nothing, but I see the edge: where the rock meets oblivion. I Stop and stand for a moment, several yards away. I can see the ocean below, lapping and frothing against cliffs stretching out for miles to either side. The tides are furious against the impenetrable walls. Straight ahead, it's a sheer drop of at least fifty yards to the water below.
To my right, tourists are dotted across the landscape below, snapping photos and aggregating themselves into ant-like formations. TO my left is Asia. In front Of me is the sky and behind is me is everything I've ever hoped for and brought with me.
What if this is it? What if this is all there is?
I look around. I'm alone. I take my first step toward the edge of the cliff.
The human body seems to come equipped with a natural radar for death-inducing situations. For example, the moment you get within about ten feet of a cliff edge, minus guardrail, a certain tension digs into your body. Your back stiffens. Your skin ripples. Your eyes become hyperfocused on every detail of your environment. Your feet feel as though they're made of rock. It's as if there were a big, invisible magnet gently pulling your body back to safety.
But I fight the magnet. I drag the feet made of rock closer to the edge.
At five feet away, your mind joins the party. You can now see not only the edge Of the cliff, but down the cliff face itself, which induces all sorts of unwanted visualizations of tripping and falling and tumbling to a splashy death. It's really fucking far, your mind reminds you. Like, really fucking far. Dude, what are you doing? Stop moving. Stop it.
I tell my mind to shut up, and keep inching forward.
At three feet, your body goes into full-scale red alert. You are now within an errant shoelace-trip Of your life ending. It feels as though a hefty gust Of wind could send you sailing Off into that blue-bisected eternity. Your legs shake. As do your hands. As does your voice, in Case you need to remind yourself you're not about to plummet to your death.
The three-foot distance is most people's absolute limit. It's just close enough to lean forward and catch a glimpse of the bottom, but still far enough to feel as though you're not at any real risk of killing yourself. Standing that close to the edge of a cliff, even one as beautiful and mesmerizing as the Cape Of Good Hope, induces a heady sense Of vertigo, and threatens to regurgitate any recent meal.
Is this it? Is this all there is? LR) I already know everything I will ever know?
I take another microstep, then another. Two feet now. My forward leg vibrates as I put the weight of my body on it. I shuffle on. Against the magnet. Against my mind. Against all my better instincts for survival.
One foot now. I'm now looking straight down the cliff face. I feel a sudden urge to cry. My body instinctively crouches, protecting itself against something imagined and inexplicable. The wind comes in hailstorms. The thoughts come in right hooks.
At one foot you feel like you're floating. Anything but looking straight down feels as though you're part of the sky itself. You actually kind of expect to fall at this point.
I crouch there for a moment, catching my breath, collecting my thoughts. I force myself to stare down at the water hitting the rocks below me. Then I look again to my right, at the little ants milling about the signage below me, snapping photos, chasing tour buses, on the Off chance that somebody somehow sees me. This desire for attention is wholly irrational. But so is all of this. It's impossible to make me out up here, Of course. And even if it weren't, there's nothing that those distant people could say or do.
All I hear is the wind.
Is this it?
My body shudders, the fear becoming euphoric and blinding. I focus my mind and clear my thoughts in a kind of meditation. Nothing makes you present and mindful like being mere inches away from your own death. I straighten up and 100k out again, and find myself smiling. I remind myself that it's all right to die.
This willing and even interfacing with one's own mortality has ancient roots. The Stoics Of ancient Greece and Rome implored people to keep death in mind at all times, in order to appreciate life more and remain humble in the face Of its adversities. In various forms Of Buddhism, the practice of meditation is often taught as a means of preparing oneself for death while still remaining alive. Dissolving one's ego into an expansive nothingness—achieving the enlightened state of nirvana—is seen as a trial run of letting oneself cross to the other side. Even Mark Twain, that hairy goofball who came in and left on Halley's Comet, said, "The fear Of death follows from the fear Of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time."
Back on the cliff, I bend down, slightly leaning back. I put my hands on the ground behind me and gently lower myself onto my butt. I then gradually slide one leg over the edge of the cliff. There's a small rock jutting out Of the cliff side. I rest my foot on it. Then I slide my Other foot off the edge and put it on the same small rock. I sit there a moment, leaning back on my palms, wind ruffling my hair. The anxiety is bearable now, as long as I Stay focused on the horizon.

Then I sit up straight and look down the cliff again. Fear shoots back up through my spine, electrifying my limbs and laser-focusing my mind on the exact coordinates of every inch of my body. The fear is stifling at times. But each time it stifles me, I empty my thoughts, focus my attention on the bottom Of the cliff below me, force myself to gaze at my potential doom, and then to simply acknowledge its existence.
I was now sitting on the edge Of the world, at the southern-most tip Of hope, the gateway to the east. The feeling was exhilarating. I can feel the adrenaline pumping through my body. Being so still, so conscious, never felt so thrilling. I listen to the wind and watch the ocean and look out upon the ends Of the earth—and then I laugh with the light, all that it touches being good.

Confronting the reality Of our own mortality is important it obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life. While most people whittle their days chasing another buck, or a little bit more fame and attention, or a little bit more assurance that they're right or loved, death confronts all of us with a far more painful and important question: What is your legacy?
How will the world be different and better when you're gone? What mark will you have made? What influence will you have caused? They say that a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can cause a hurricane in Florida; well, what hurricanes will you leave in your wake?
As Becker pointed out, this is arguably the only truly important question in our life. Yet we avoid thinking about it. One, because it's hard. Two, because it's scary. Three, because we have no fucking clue what we're doing.
And when we avoid this question, we let trivial and hateful values hijack our brains and take control of our desires and ambitions. Without acknowledging the ever-present gaze of death, the superficial will appear important, and the important will appear superficial. Death is the only thing we can know with any certainty. And as such, it must be the compass by which we orient all of our other values and decisions. It is the correct answer to all of the questions we should ask but never do. The only way to be comfortable with death is to understand and see yourself as something bigger than yourself; to choose values that stretch beyond serving yourself, that are simple and immediate and controllable and tolerant Of the chaotic world around you. This is the basic root Of all happiness. Whether you're listening to Aristotle or the psychologists at Harvard or Jesus Christ or the goddamn Beatles, they all say that happiness comes from the same thing: caring about something greater than yourself, believing that you are a contributing component in some much larger entity, that your life is
but a mere side process of some great unintelligible production. This feeling is what people go to church for; it's what they fight in wars for; it's what they raise families and save pensions and build bridges and invent cell phones for: this fleeting sense Of part Of something greater and more unknowable than themselves.
And entitlement strips this away from us. The gravity Of entitlement sucks all attention inward, toward ourselves, causing us to feel as though we are at the center of all of the problems in the universe, that we are the one suffering all Of the injustices, that we are the one who deserves greatness over all others.
As alluring as it is, entitlement isolates us. Our curiosity and excitement for the world turns in upon itself and reflects Our own biases and projections onto every person we meet and every event we experience. This feels sexy and enticing and may feel good for a while and sells a lot of tickets, but it's spiritual poison.
It's these dynamics that plague us now. We are so materially well off, yet so psychologically tormented in so many low-level and shallow ways. People relinquish all responsibility, demanding that society cater to their feelings and sensibilities. People hold on to arbitrary certainties and try to enforce them on others, often violently, in the name Of some made-up righteous cause. People, high on a sense of false superiority, into inaction an e gy or ear 0 trying somthing worth and failing at it.
The pampering of the modern mind has resulted in a population that feels deserving of something without earning that something, a population that feels they have a right to something without sacrificing for it. People declare themselves experts, entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators, mavericks, and coaches without any real-life experience. And they do this not because they actually think they are greater than everybody else; they do it because they feel that they need to be great to be accepted in a world that broadcasts only the extraordinary.
Our culture today confuses great attention and great success, assuming them to be the same thing. But they are not.
You are great. Already. Whether you realize it Or not. Whether anybody else realizes it Or not. And it's not because you launched an iPhone app, or finished school a year early, or bought yourself a Sweet-ass boat. These things do not define greatness.
You are already great because in the face of endless confusion and certain death, you continue to choose what to give a fuck about and what not to. This mere fact, this simple optioning for your own values in life, already makes you beautiful, already makes you successful, and already makes you loved. Even if you don't realize it. Even if you're sleeping in a gutter and starving.
You too are going to die, and that's because you too were fortunate enough to have lived. You may not feel this. But go stand on a cliff sometime, and maybe you will.
Bukowski once wrote, "We're all going to die, all of us. What a circus! That alone should make us love each Other, but it doesn't. We are terrorized and flattened by life's trivialities; we are eaten up by nothing."
Looking back on that night, out by that lake, when I watched my friend Josh's body getting fished out of the lake by paramedics. I remember staring into the black Texas night and watching my ego slowly dissolve into it. Josh's death taught me much more than I initially realized. Yes, it helped me to seize the day, to take responsibility for my choices, and to pursue my dreams with less shame and inhibition.
But these were side effects of a deeper, more Drimarv lesson. And the primary lesson was this: there is nothing to be afraid of. Ever. And reminding myself of my own death repeatedly over the years—whether it be through meditation, through reading philosophy, or through doing crazy shit like standing on a cliff in South Africa—is the only thing that has helped me hold this realization front and center in my mind. This acceptance Of my death, this understanding Of my own fragility, has made everything easier—untangling my addictions, identifying and confronting my own entitlement, accepting responsibility for my own problems—suffering through my fears and uncertainties, accepting my failures and embracing rejections—it has all been made lighter by the thought of my own death. The more I peer into the darkness, the brighter life gets, the quieter the world becomes,
and the less unconscious resistance I feel to, well, anything.
I sit there on the Cape for a few minutes, taking in everything. When I finally decide to get up, I put my hands behind me and scoot back. Then, slowly, I stand. I check the ground around me—making sure there's no errant rock ready to sabotage me. Having recognized that I am safe, I begin to walk back to reality—five feet, ten feet—my body restoring itself with each step. My feet become lighter. I let life's magnet draw me in.
As I step back over some rocks, back to the main path, I look up to see a man staring at me. I stop and make eye contact with him.
"Um. I saw you sitting on the edge over there," he says. His accent is Australian. The word "there" rolls out of his mouth awkwardly. He points toward Antarctica.
"Yeah. The view is gorgeous, isn't it?" I am smiling. He is not. He has a serious 100k on his face.
I brush my hands off on my shorts, my body still buzzing from my surrender. There's an awkward silence.

The Aussie stands for a moment, perplexed, still looking at me, clearly thinking of what to say next. After a moment, he carefully pieces the words together.
"Is everything okay? How are you feeling?"
I pause for a moment, still smiling. "Alive. Very alive."
His skepticism breaks and reveals a smile in its place. He gives a slight nod and heads down the trail. I stand above, taking in the view, waiting for my friends to arrive on the peak.

MARK MANSON is a Star blogger with more than two million readers. He lives in New York City. Discover great authors.





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