Building a System to Remember Death

I always wonder about doctors who regularly deal with terminally ill people. Every day they have to look into the eyes of those who themselves are staring at death. Wouldn’t such frequent exposure desensitized these medical professionals to death? Especially their own death.

All human anxiety they say stems from the fundamental fear — the fear of dying. Yet, when it comes to making important choices, our lives mirror what Yudhishthira observed in Mahabharata.

A Yaksha quizzes Yudhishthira — what’s the biggest irony in this world?

Yudhishthira replies, “Everyday countless humans and creatures die, yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal. What can be more ironical than this?”

The gap between two things — knowing that we’re going to die and letting that knowledge reflect on our actions —  is ten miles wide.

This morning my friend Vineet (an oncologist and a brilliant multidisciplinary thinker) shared an article titled The Lesson of Impermanence authored by Dr. Sunita Puri. She is a palliative care doctor — someone whose job is to alleviate the sufferings of those who are either terminally ill or under tremendous pain caused by a debilitating disease. Dr. Puri found herself torn between two opposing ideas — acknowledging the inevitability of death and the incessant efforts to delay its arrival. The article talks about how she found solace in a strange art practiced by Vietnamese Buddhist monks.

Dr. Puri isn’t the first doctor to philosophize on death. In my knowledge, there are two other wonderful books written by medical surgeons on this subject. Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande and When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. Dr. Kalanithi, a young surgeon, wrote his book after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer which eventually took his life. The book released after he was gone.

In his Stanford speech Stay Hungry Stay Foolish, Steve Jobs said —

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

I know what you’re thinking. Won’t this practice — constantly thinking about death — cause depression?

It may. For some people. But what have you got to lose? Remember, no one gets out alive from the game of life.

So let me share what I am doing with this idea.

When I say remembering death, I don’t mean to focus on the pain and suffering associated with the process of dying. I am referring to the subtle awareness that the game can be over — probably sooner than we would like to believe and maybe anytime.

Remembering my own death is turning out to be a useful hack for refocusing my attention towards things that are valuable for me. Of course, reading books on this topic does help but the demands of the daily routine suck the mind back into oblivion. The moment the book is back on the bookshelf, we forget about it.

For example, does reading about exercise necessarily make you fit? Yes, the odds go up but only slightly. To keep fit, we need a system for ensuring that we workout. And it’s true for any habit that you want to build.

So I have started building a personal system that can create a constant awareness about my death. I am looking for practical ideas that can bolster my system to remember death.

Here are some tools that I have been trying to remind myself that the curtains can fall anytime.

We Croak App

A simple app which does just one thing. Reminds you five times a day — “Remember, you’re going to die.” When you tap on the reminder, it shows a quote related to death. Since the reminder comes at unpredictable times during the day, I almost always catch myself fretting over some insignificant thing which looked important in that state of mind. The reminder instantly disengages the mind. It has a strangely calming effect.

Many thanks to Vishal for introducing me to WeCroak. Here some of those death quotes which froze me for at least a few minutes —

We’re all going to die, all of us; what a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t.

Those who have the strength and the love to sit with a dying patient in the silence that goes beyond words will know that this moment is neither frightening nor painful, but a peaceful cessation of the functioning of the body.

No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it.

Not only will your possessions be unable to help you at the time of death, but your mind may be caught up in worries about them — who will get what, and whether or not they will take proper care of “your” things. So that will make it difficult to have a peaceful, detached state of mind as you are dying.

It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young.

I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.

The Last Sunday

It’s a chrome browser plugin created by Paras Chopra. A tool’s effectiveness is often directly correlated to its simplicity. The Last Sunday is a great example of this axiom.

Every time I open a new tab in my browser (something I do a hundred times during the day), the plugin shows the number of Sundays remaining in my life. Here’s what it’s showing me today —

The Last Sunday by Paras Chopra

If you have any suggestions (or opposing views) feel free to leave a comment below.