The headquarters of my company (Starwood Hotels and Resorts) recently relocated to a beautiful part of Stamford, Connecticut. Our new offices happen to be located adjacent to a cemetery, where I sometimes go running on my lunch break.
I’m not sure what the etiquette is of running through a cemetery where I have no relationship to any of those interred there, and I would hate to do anything that those there to mourn the loss of a loved one might consider disrespectful. But so far, I have not seen any visitors to the graves. It is only me, a handful of caretakers, and hundreds of tombstones. This solitude is what makes it a nice run. It is quiet and green (but especially quiet.)
The tombstones make an interesting backdrop for my run. I pay particular attention to the dates as I run by, especially on the tombs of those who died at a young age. It reminds me of my own mortality and helps me to focus on what is important during this brief window of time I have to walk upon this earth.
Psychologists call this “mortality salience” and it can be a huge motivator of human behavior. But not always in a positive way. “Terror management theory” suggests that most of human activity is based on our futile efforts to deny, forget, or overcome the impermanence of life.
When we become aware of our own mortality, we often respond with avoidance, suppression, or attempts to boost our own feelings of significance. Sometimes this means aligning ourselves to a particular culture or world view (such as religious beliefs that contain comforting themes such as “purpose,” “God’s will,” “afterlife,” and “eternity.”) The downside of clinging to these beliefs is they make us less receptive to others who share different beliefs, creating conflict and discord between people.
This led Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to suggest that if we could overcome this defensive reaction to our own mortality, we could create more peace in the world:
If all of us would make an all-out effort to contemplate our own death, to deal with our anxieties surrounding the concept of our death . . . perhaps there could be less destructiveness around us. (Kubler-Ross, 1969, p. 27)
Recent research suggests that the more mindful someone is, the more open they are to contemplating their own mortality. And rather than then being motivated to suppress or deny the impermanence of life, they are able to draw meaning from it in a positive way (Niemic, et al., 2010.)
In Oliver Burkeman’s new book, “The Antidote,” he talks about accepting one’s own morality as a pathway to wellbeing. According to Burkeman, Roman emperors had a servant march behind them whispering “memento mori” (remember you are soon to die) so that awareness of their own mortality was always at the forefront. This awareness gave them a sense of humility as well as a reminder to savor life while they could.
According to Paul Wong, an expert on the meaning of life, the acceptance of death (as opposed to avoidance) helps us to appreciate the “fragility and finitude of life” and to “deliberate wisely regarding our priorities and ultimate life goal.” This gives us a greater passion for living and allows us to live in a more authentic way.
Another analysis of recent scientific studies found that “thinking about death can lead to a good life.” An awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help us re-prioritize our goals and values. Even non-conscious thinking about death — say walking by a cemetery — could prompt positive changes and promotes helping others.
Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the days immediately following 9/11 in New York City. The entire population, although mourning, was infused with a glow of altruism and compassion the likes of which I have never seen before or since. Perhaps a side effect of being confronted with our mortality in such a brutal way.
Every animal is biologically programmed for self-preservation, but only humans are aware that they will eventually perish. We fight for survival while struggling with the simple awareness that failure is inevitable.
This is a harsh and sobering thought. But by keeping it in mind it helps us remember what is important, appreciate what we have, and cherish who we’re with.
My runs through the graveyard are a powerful reminder of my own mortality and a gentle motivator for my run. While running, I contemplate the impermanence of life, and often think of this passage from Neil Pasricha’s TED talk:
The cashiers at your grocery store, the foreman at your plant, the guy tailgating you home on the highway, the telemarketer calling you during dinner, every teacher you’ve ever had, everyone that’s ever woken up beside you, every politician in every country, every actor in every movie, every single person in your family, everyone you love, everyone in this room and you will be dead in a hundred years. Life is so great, but we only get such a short time to experience and enjoy all those tiny little moments that make it so sweet. And that moment is right now; and those moments are counting down; and those moments are always, always, always fleeting.