Annette DelCanto-Ellington, LCSW, SEP
This post discusses death. If you have an anxiety that may be triggered from such a discussion, please consider refraining from reading this article.
When I was a young woman, I lost a brother to cancer. That loss was devastating and shook my life in many ways, as one might imagine. Six years later, I lost another brother to a terrible accident. Again my life was devastated and shaken. Both deaths led me into some darkness and deep self-reflection. And both of those tragic deaths led me to make drastic changes to my life, each leading me to change relationships, move across the country, and ultimately walk away from situations that were no longer serving me. Death’s shadow, whether brought to our attention through the loss of a loved one, a near accident we experienced, a rough illness or diagnosis, or something else, inevitably leaves us with intense and sometimes painful awareness that life’s bright sun will one day set, and we will find ourselves out of time - out of time to follow our dreams, own our power, make up our minds, do what we want, perhaps to forgive and to love. We will be out of time to make peace with ourselves.
I’m currently recovering from an illness that I never felt threatened by in any real way, but all illnesses that keep us in bed for even a few days can leave our nervous systems with some sense of threat. This is normal, and is part of what keeps us chugging down that hot tea, those vitamins and medications, so we can get back on with the business of living. Illness is the business of dying, and we don’t want to stay there. But again, the experience of being sick can put us in touch with death’s ever present shadow.
Through this illness, which is now on day eight though much improved, I’ve had a range of challenging symptoms, which have included some compromised breathing. If you or someone you love has asthma or something similar, you probably understand the anxiety that can set in when it becomes difficult to get sufficient air. Through it all, my sleep has at times been deep and heavy, and other times fitful. My dreams have been full of twists and turns. At one point in a dream I was traveling to far away places, and I met a woman standing in a line behind me, and she was speaking Russian. Though I do not speak Russian, I could somehow understand that she was saying she was a doctor. In the dream I was lying down, and I asked her to help me sit up so I could breathe. Other dreams this week have included scenes of being young and back in college again while fighting a heavy fever, experiencing hiking adventures with girlfriends, but having to stop and sleep on the trail because my body ached and needed rest. Themes of relentless physical distress and exuberant life, intertwined.
There is a tension that exists between life and death, death and life. They exist together. We cannot have one without the other. Where there is life, there will be death. Where there is death, there will be life once more. All shall pass. Life will renew. Life will bloom, and life will eventually die. We see that in life everywhere. One flower blooms, another dies, and then another sprouts anew. As in my illness dreams, life reminds us that death awaits, And death reminds us that life awaits. We all receive visits from death’s shadow. Reminders that we are frail, and we will expire, and to live while we are indeed alive!
The average human lifespan is approximately eighty years. That comes to a little over 700,000 hours in the average human life. You may have already lived out about half of those hours. Maybe more, maybe less. In my case, I’ve already lived out about 500,000 of them. Of the remaining 200,000 or so, I’m going to spend about 65,000 of those hours sleeping (and don’t skip the sleep! It helps with longevity!). So we’re talking only about 135,000 hours I’ve got left to play with. And many of those hours will be consumed by working, chores, eating, grooming, exercising, etc. Because I plan to retire someday, I am going to be generous and assume that after all that, I probably have about 90,000 hours left to do with what I want. I don’t know about you, but to me that doesn’t sound like much. And that’s assuming I don’t die early from cancer, an accident, or some other tragic spin.
So what will I do with my treasured hours? What will I do with my precious time? What is that tension between death’s ever present shadow and life’s determined will to persevere telling me to do? What are my unfinished projects that matter? What no longer matters? What is no longer serving me and needs to be retired? Are there relationships that no longer work for me? Are there habits that are no longer useful? If I were not tending to these no longer useful activities or relationships in my life, what would I be doing with my hours instead? What is calling to me? What must I tend to, so that I may be more authentically myself? I know some of the answers.
But what about you? Is something call to you? Something that needs tending? Is there a relationship that is no longer serving you? Is there one you desire? Is there a creative project you have always dreamed of but have been too afraid to attempt? Do you wish for a different career or job? Do you feel called to a particular work? Are you afraid to try? Are you afraid to not try? If you feel called, but feel stuck, not knowing what to do, you may be in existential angst.
When we have pressing and nagging feelings or a sense of a calling that we should be doing something more or something different with our lives right now, but we are afraid to change, yet also afraid to not change, we are in existential angst. It is a sense that we are presently in the wrong situation, yet we don’t change it. And some part of us knows the hours are ticking by.
Writer and philosopher Joseph Campbell calls this “refusing the call to action.” From Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, he posits that everyone is “called to action” at one point or another in life and often more than once. This is a chance to be the hero in our own lives, to do what we feel called to do, a call to a purpose, a way to give more to ourselves and to the world. This is a call to be more fully self actualized and to become a greater version of ourselves. We are faced with answering this call to greatness, or refuse and remain in an ordinary and mundane life. And when we refuse the call, we don't settle down. There is a sense of wrongness to the refusal that sits in our nervous system. We remain anxious. Turning away from the call leads us to confusion, internal conflict, regret. And yet, we all refuse, at least at first. Answering the call can be frightening, because it often requires strength to change something fundamental about ourselves. We may have to walk away from something or someone that is not working for us. Or it may be that we have to discipline ourselves to accomplish a meaningful goal. The good news is that we can always change directions and answer the call to action no matter how many times we have refused it. If the calling is still beckoning, we can take on the call to action.
And don’t confuse my word “greatness” with “flashiness.” The call may be something quite visible, like starting a business or a nonprofit, or it might be something less visible like writing poetry, starting a garden, or volunteering with a social services agency. You will know your calling because you will feel called to it. It will feel pressing and important, and it will require a change from within you that will require strength. You will know.
Death and life coexist. There cannot be one without the other. We all know that, but facing our own mortality can be deeply frightening, so we may avoid thinking about it. But sometimes we can’t avoid it, like when a friend or relative dies, or we become sick. Then we must face death’s shadow. And the more conscious we are of our shortened time, the more focused we become on what matters most to us, and the less we spin our wheels on what no longer serves us. In turn we are filled with connection to ourselves and others and the world, as well as a deepened connection to life itself. And we thereby commune with our life purpose or purposes, and blossom in what we bring to our lives and to the world.
What is one step you can take to begin answering your call? How about simply sitting down with a pen and notepad. Then write out some thoughts. What are you called to do? Make a list. Break the list down into steps. Writing it down is that first step. What will be your second step?
I wish you luck in your journey of self actualization and finding your greatness!
There’s a song that moves me every time I hear it by Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit called, “If We Were Vampires.” It’s a poignant song about how time runs out, and how that truth spurs the singer to not take his lover for granted. Here is a link so you may listen to this lovely and wise song.
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"While I breathe, I hope."
- Latin Proverb
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