Close to where I live there is a scenic loop trail that I like to run when I’m feeling restless and need to move. The track is wide, has a bunch of intersecting trail options if I want to mix things up, it’s only a 2 minute drive from my door and I’m pretty much in the forest right from the start.
It also happens to pass right next to a Graveyard.
The first few times I passed by I didn’t even notice it. It’s facade and grounds are a lot more subdued to what I’m used to coming from Ireland where medieval cemeteries lie around every corner, with tall Round Towers and large ornate Celtic crosses.
Eventually though, I did notice it. I noticed the gravestones and acknowledged that this was the final resting place for all those people.
Sometimes as I’d be approaching the graveyard my pace would have slowed, I’d be in my own head, thinking about problems that I needed to solve which are never really actual problems in the grand scheme of things. I wouldn’t be enjoying my run at all. My legs would feel heavy, my shoulders stiff, my knees tight.
But as I’d turn the corner and see the entrance to the graveyard, shaded by the large branches of two old oak trees I’d be reminded about how trivial my problems really were. Here lay people that could no longer experience life in any capacity. What would they give to be able to experience this run that I was on, regardless of how bad I imagined it felt?
“Part of us always knows that we’re just a Doctors visit away… from being startlingly reminded of the fact of our own mortality” – Sam Harris
Death, to me, is always the elephant in the room. In Western culture at least you can’t even bring the subject up. It’s deemed “morbid” and “macabre”. If discussion surrounding it does come up somebody will inevitably say something along the lines of “let’s lift the mood, eh? Why can’t we talk about something positive?”.
I find this utterly mind boggling. Death, to me, should only be a topic that is avoided when the possibility of living life fully is not an option. Western society contains the only humans on the planet that have a freedom to shape their lives how they see fit. The vast majority of people who exist right now have no option but to live the lives they were born into. In the West we have freedom to become what we imagine. We have the resources to do so and the security, largely, to follow our dreams unopposed.
In my mind, Western Society has no reason to avoid the topic of Death. If anything, as we are free to follow our passions, we should be using the fleeting nature of life to fuel the course of our lives. Nothing focuses the mind to achieve it’s aspirations like the healthy sense of urgency one feels when we allow the profound reality of mortality to sink in. It should be a fire inside us that drives us to experience life, fill it with joy, excitement and happiness and to share this with others.
Yet, we don’t. We waste days, weeks and months of our lives working jobs we don’t like, talking to people we don’t care for, consuming media that bores us. Getting into mundane, quotidian routines and just going through the motions.
“You may delay, but time will not.” – Benjamin Franklin
I get it. I do it also from time to time. Every day I try to take stock of my life. I try to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, what I learned and, more importantly, what I unlearned and let go of. But, I can procrastinate. I delay. I find distractions. It seems media is becoming an insidious monster for perfecting the art of distraction. Youtube, Facebook and it’s ilk get smarter every time I click on a link. They learn what distracts me and then they show me more of it. It’s quite scary actually. I have to be vigilant to maintain a focus on what I am using the internet for and what I want to learn from it, otherwise I could let it burn hours of my life.
It can become all too easy to get lost down the rabbit hole and get buried under a mountain of tasks and chores and obligations we feel we need to attend to before getting back to actually living.
It’s at times like those that I turn off the screens around me, grab my trailrunners and go running, and when I see that Graveyard approaching again around the bend I run fast. I run fast as I pass by not because the reality of death scares me, but because I realize that I owe it to those no longer living to live my life better. We all do. I will be there myself one day so I try to imagine what that future version of myself will wish I had done. Would he wish that I’d stopped running, gave up, turned around, delayed, stayed inside because of the weather, clicked around for hours on the internet to distract myself?
“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” – Dylan Thomas
I think of myself, that person in the future that can no longer live and I run hard, I feel my heart beat strong in my chest, my lungs burn from the crisp air, my eyes focus on the winding trail ahead, my body dancing over the roots and rocks as I duck and swerve to avoid the low hanging branches and I savor this moment. All doubts, all distractions fade away. This moment, these ephemeral moments, this is what it is to be alive.