“Maybe we need the promise of death to guard against taking life for granted.”
By Sunita Puri
I drove back to my home the next day, pensive. In my kitchen that evening, I picked at a burrito I’d grabbed from a food truck down the street. I drove home starving, but lost my appetite after a few bites. Outside my window, Sunset Boulevard was a river of light, a constant stream of headlights and bike lamps, colorful blinking restaurant signs and fluorescent streetlights. In a shadowed parking lot, dark figures moved quickly toward cars.
Something weighed on me, though I couldn’t articulate it precisely. I wandered around my place, sitting on my couch and moving to a chair, picking up a book and setting it down to watch TV instead. I turned the TV off and considered going to bed early. Maybe a good night’s sleep would fix my restless mind.
And then a question surfaced. What if I suffered a sudden stroke, as Auntie had? Her situation had at first reminded me of my parents’ mortality, but what of my own? Perhaps this crossed my mind because Auntie and I shared a common heritage, and she had suffered a sudden catastrophic event, which could happen to anyone regardless of their age. Maybe the fact that I had faced another transition point, my last week at my first attending job, contributed subconsciously to my mind’s sudden insistence that I consider the meaning of endings. Whatever the reason, I began once again to consider my own answers to the questions I had asked my parents. I knew that I was mortal, that at some point my body would shut down.But though my rational mind knew this, sometimes it felt like mortality didn’t apply to me. I was a doctor. I was there to tend to other people’s mortality. I thought back to all the years I’d clung to the idea of delayed gratification, the times when I’d put my life on hold until I’d completed an educational milestone. If I persisted in my studies, I’d told myself countless times, I’d someday have all the time in the world to enjoy life. I panicked now as I considered what my life would mean if it ended tomorrow in an accident.
What had I learned about death in doing this work? I’d seen that no amount of considering or preparing for it made it easy. Talking about it to prepare frightened loved ones, saying or writing good-byes (if one was lucky and lucid enough to do so), and trying to make peace with a higher power might soothe us and help us. We feared it and sought to control every aspect of it, even considering physician-assisted suicide to give us a sense of agency over an unconquerable aspect of human existence. But if death was not only a medical fact but also a spiritual and sacred passage, then it would always have a certain mystery that was perhaps worth accepting rather than attempting to control. Because we can’t control it. We can’t always anticipate or prepare for it. What we define as a “good death” may not be in the cards for us. But maybe we can use the inevitability of death to live differently. Maybe we need the promise of death to guard against taking life for granted.
I thought back to the many times I feared death as an outcome for my patients, convinced that it was my job to forestall it, to control and manipulate nature. Giving death this much power distorted my view on life—my own, and that of my loved ones and patients. Fighting and fearing death obscured finding meaning in living moments.
What if I regarded my own death with reverence instead of fear? I wondered. Or, even more radically, what if I had some sort of gratitude for the transience of my life? Would it change what I worried and cared about? Wasn’t it necessary to think about this when I was in the midst of building a life? Or rather, living my life? And the more I thought about mortality and what it had come to mean to others and what I thought it meant to me, I realized that life was simultaneously so vast and so small.
It was daybreak after a good sleep and exhaustion as the stars emerged. It was the first crisp bite of an apple, the taste of butter on toast. It was the way a tree’s shadow moved along the wall of a room as the afternoon passed. It was the smell of a baby’s skin, the feeling of a heart fluttering with anticipation or nerves. It was the steady rhythm of a lover’s breathing during sleep. It was both solitude in a wide green field and the crowding together of bodies in a church. It was equally common and singular, a shared tumult and a shared peace. It was the many things I’d ignored or half appreciated as I chased the bigger things. It was infinity in a seashell.
I thought and thought that night, making mint tea and taking a few sips, watching the steam rise from the cup and then disappear. It felt strangely calming to focus on the cooling of heat, to appreciate the fact of temporary warmth. Maybe this, too, was the lesson of mortality: appreciating what we have now, in the midst of life, knowing that it is all a temporary gift.
I didn’t want the sum total of my life to be only a collection of my worldly achievements, boxes of degrees, and lists of patients I’d treated. I thought of what I had pushed off or considered unimportant, the things I promised myself I’d do when I “had the time.” I’d call the friend I had been meaning to call for the past year since I moved to LA. I’d take my mother to the beach in Santa Barbara. I’d take a pottery class. I’d write regularly to my uncles in Mumbai. I’d learn to cook Thai food. I’d adopt a puppy. I’d deal with my fear of bugs and go camping. These all seemed like such cheesy wishes as I thought about them. But these were the things I didn’t want to leave my life without doing. Which meant they weren’t small things.
That night was the beginning of a conversation I continue to have with myself, especially in the moments when the wrong parts of my life feel big and cast shadows over the smaller things. Those are the times I return to my copy of the Gita, having stumbled across a passage that perfectly captured how the fact of death has taught me to live differently:
No matter how strongly you ascribe to the universal delusion that you can avoid pain and only have pleasure in this life (which is utterly impossible), sooner or later you must confront the fact of your inevitable aging and eventual death Therefore, because death stirs people to seek answers to important spiritual questions it becomes the greatest servant of humanity, rather than its most feared enemy.
And there it was—the life lesson, and the death lesson. Vast and small, interlinked. Infinity in a seashell.
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