In 2016, I checked off a long-time bucket list item when I participated in a sold-out Boulder Ignite event. When I rewatched it just now to transcribe it (below), I expected to cringe in the way you do when you read an old journal. But it wasn’t so bad. My life has gotten considerably more complicated in the years since I did this talk, but I still try to remember every single day that is there is only one thing I have any control over: how I choose to interact with the world. I will note, however, that I haven’t watched TheWalking Dead since they killed off Glenn. That guy knew how to live.
I recently participated in a mindfulness class, and in one of the sessions we did a walking meditation and this is Boulder so you pretty much all know what that means. But basically you walk slowly and deliberately and you almost stumble at points.
And in a flash, I caught this out of the corner of my eye and I thought, we look like the walking dead, and then I remembered we really were the walking dead. So I should explain.
The class was taking place in a hospital. And the participants were cancer survivors. Fortunately, I’m a survivor, but unfortunately, I’ve had cancer. I was diagnosed with a small cell tumor in my breast almost a year ago.
According to my pathology report, small cell is not great, but I had a rare instance. Fewer than 40 people have ever had small cell in their breast and it’s the small cell equivalent of winning the lottery, but it’s still not a ticket I recommend purchasing.
And while I was in chemo, I watched a lot of The Walking Dead, which people thought was strange and morbid, but if you’ve ever been through anything like that, you know that there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned end of the world scenario to let you know your problem’s not that big.
And under the shadow of my mortality, I noticed two things. First, my chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse had just plummeted. And second, I had been bitten. Cancer was like being bitten. I was among the walking dead.
You know how I knew this? I saw the looks in the eyes of the characters when someone they loved had been bitten, and I knew that look. I had seen it in the eyes of people who loved me so many times.
I’m out of chemo. I’m healthy now. And I don’t see that look so much anymore, but I still think about my own death all the time. And I’m not talking about cancer. It could be anything at any time.
I know that I will die in a way I never knew it before. I know it deep in my bones and light on the surface of my skin. I can see it in my eyes. I am mortal. And I was starting to think that it was maybe not great to think about death this much, but it turns out it’s pretty good.
A 2013 study found that people who think about their own deaths are actually funnier. And, incidentally, humor comes in really handy when your hair falls out and you gain 20 pounds of water weight.
Want to save money? You might consider thinking about your own death. A 2015 study found that people who thought about their own deaths were actually better financial savers.
But the most important reason to think about your own death is that actually makes your life better.
Buddha is said to have instructed his students to meditate over images of dead bodies, with the observation, This body, too.
And Bhutan is said to have some of the happiest people in the world. According to them, their secret is they think about death, every day, five times a day. And that by thinking about their own deaths, they’re able to more fully live.
Which brings me back to that room in the hospital of cancer survivors. These people that have been beaten down by disease and by the poison we use to treat it, and by the knives that leave us as scarred on the outside as we are on the inside, and by the soul crushing loss of the futures that we thought we knew,
these people who were there to think a little bit about their deaths but also to make whatever was left of their lives better, and I realized that we really were the walking dead. Just not the way I thought.
Because we’re not dead yet. And the walking dead? I don’t know if everybody knew this but me? They’re not the zombies. They’re the survivors and it’s more than the survivors, they’re all of us.
Because we are all, in some sense, just waiting to die. We just don’t all know it yet. But the people on the show? They know it. The people in my class? They definitely know it. Every moment, we might be just one moment from death, but we still choose to live.
We build friendships, we smile at strangers, we fall in love, we build families, we shape the people we want to be, we shape the world we want to live in, we wear white before Memorial Day. Every day, we choose how we will live.
Every single one of you is going to die. Actually cease to exist. And you won’t have a choice in how or when. And you should sit with that. Because that reveals a far more powerful truth. You are alive. And while you almost certainly will have no say in how you die, you do get to choose in every single moment of this beautiful, beautiful life, just how you will live.