Living under sentence of death: No time to waste

Keep on Path sign at Zen temple

Photo: andrew prickett/Flickr.

Last night, I dreamed that a doctor told me I had cancer. Somehow, I knew that all treatment was pointless. I knew that I would die. And since it was lung cancer, I expected that death to be slow, painful and ultimately, to leave me gasping for air. A horrible end.

I was afraid. I wanted to shout out “I don’t want to die!”

Yet, the bad news was also the good news: I had ten years to live.

In the dream, that prognosis felt like a rip off because a middle-aged American like me might otherwise expect decades of living yet in which to finally write that book or get elected mayor or move to a farm.

But on waking, I started to think about ten years left to me as good news. Of course, why shouldn’t I die this afternoon? It’s true that I’m neither fighting in Iraq nor working in a chemical plant but just sitting safely at home tapping on a computer. But I could still get hit by a bus crossing the street or fall down the front steps or slip in the shower.

Most accidents, as they say, happen at home.

What dreams mean

Phillippe de Chamgaigne paiting

Life, time and death — a memento mori. Vanitas by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671. Courtesy of the Art of Manliness.

My wife tends to think that dreams predict the future, so she finds it ominous when people dream of getting mugged or going to war or getting cancer. But I’ve had enough dreams of being rich or meeting Bill Clinton or leading a stadium audience of thousands in a bizarre fight song to be skeptical of dreams’ predictive value.

I’m more convinced by the teaching of Tibetan lamas that dreams are a kind of “light” or pseudo-karma that take the place of events in waking life. That is, if you dream about something happening, it may prevent that event from really happening. For example, let’s say you were fated to break your leg next week. But if you dream of breaking your leg tomorrow night, it might be enough to exhaust that particular fate and keep you on your feet for the indefinite future.

Not that I think having this dream will keep me from ever getting cancer. But certainly it’s not too much to hope that nobody might ever get cancer again — and that all who have cancer now might be swiftly cured!

Whatever effect the effect of this dream on me or anyone else in the future, this morning it gave me a strong sense of urgency. It was a small reminder in my distracted existence of how fragile is the gift not only of my own threescore and ten but also of brilliant sunny skies and cool fall breezes.

Extinction — humanity’s and mine

Our planet’s Edenic climate may already be doomed because of runaway greenhouse gases. And the relative peace that most of us enjoy in America, Europe and the rest of the industrial world may soon be shattered by oil shock and financial collapse. Sometimes I think I can already hear the hoof beats of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming over the ridgeline of the hills outside of town.

Then again, things could turn out better than we thought. Who can predict the future?

Yet, whether our civilization and our species have ten years or ten thousand years remaining, we are all living under a death sentence. Industrial consumerism makes it easier than ever to forget this basic fact of mortal life. And though things are dire today, we’re no different from Neanderthals in that, from birth, our days are numbered.

So I need to remind myself not to waste time. Not to click on too many hyperlinks and certainly not to spend to much time on Facebook. Not to distract myself with too much retail therapy at the antique mall or on Amazon. Not to obsess over whether my clients or my students or my neighbors think I’m smart or successful or entertaining. Not to worry so much about money or forget to meditate and spend time with green plants.

But also, not to get too impatient with people in town who don’t see that the Long Emergency has already started.

Under sentence of death, all I really have is today. So I’d better try to breathe easy and let my mind become like the sky. Then, in all good things, I must act. As the Zen Buddhist saying goes, “practice as though your head was on fire.” Or, another Zen saying:

May I respectfully remind you: Great is the matter of birth and death.
All is impermanent, quickly passing. Be awake each moment.
Don’t waste this life. Think of the great matter.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. says

    Your sentiment is duplicated within me. Nature itself (heirloom seeds, organic farming, permaculture, etc) and technologies (like solar, birth control, etc, etc) if applied on a world scale would quicly begin stopping and reversing eco damage already done. Problem is world wide robber Barron mentality of “leadership” and their resulting schemes stand in the way. Praying for a critical mass of awareness which will inspire all to unplug from consuming “unsustainable stuff”.

  2. R Twitchell says

    From the Meditation of Marcus Aurelius:
    Consider yourself to be dead, and to have completed your life up to the present time; and live according to nature the remainder which is allowed you. (Book VII)

    There are endless references in the Meditations to how fleeting, how transitory this little tiny stage is between the fertilizer to fertilizer before and after stages… So it’s important to make sense in this tiny little nothing blink of an eye micro-moment we have in this talking, walking phase.


    • says

      Roger, you’re so right. It’s ashes to ashes and dust to dust, isn’t it? And somehow it’s very peaceful and even somewhat energizing to realize it. As one deep thinker who did, Marcus Aurelius has a lot of wisdom to offer us today.

  3. Eike says

    Funny how many people are afraid of their not-being-anymore after death, whereas most are very cool about their not-having-been before birth (sorry for my non native speaker’s bad grammar, but I hope the point came across).

    • says

      Elke, before-birth is a perspective I hadn’t considered. I tend to fear things in the future and just take those in the past for granted. I wonder if others tend to do the same?

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