Along with the gift of self-awareness comes awareness of our mortality. Your battery is running down and can’t be recharged. We prefer not to think about what we wish wasn’t so, but the tragedy is that we’re mortal, not that we know we’re mortal. Knowledge yields power, and by accepting that your time is limited, you can use this information to live better. How?
– Be grateful for the time you have. You can lament that your time is finite, or you can rejoice that you have any time at all. You didn’t do anything to deserve a life. The sequence of events necessary for you to have arisen out of nothing were so unimaginably improbable that you should be stunned that you’re here. Out of all of the people who could’ve existed, you’re among the vanishingly small percentage who actually do.
You can complain that you don’t have much time, or you can celebrate that you have a lot of time. At the cosmic scale, your life is an infinitesimal dot between two infinite spans. But at the human scale, a lifetime is long enough to do amazing things. To pursue and master a dozen passions. To build a hundred friendships. To love and lose and love again, and again. To chase your dreams and, if you care enough to work hard, to reach them. To have an exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, awesome life.
– Feel compassion for others. Each of them is also hanging from a branch that will eventually break. Let the commonality of our plight foster empathy and kinship. Help them to cope with their mortality and to get the most out of the time they do have.
– Live as long as you can, and stay as healthy as you can. Grasp the branch firmly; don’t fall before it breaks. And help others to live healthier, longer lives as well.
– Be less self-centric. The idea of an ongoing, bounded self is an illusion. The child you once were no longer exists; as you change you are continually dying and being reborn. With this frame of mind, what we call death affects only the last of a long series of yous, all of whose predecessors had already passed on.
In the bigger picture, your body is on loan from the universe. It’s an incredibly fortunate collection of atoms forged in stellar furnaces and pulled together by gravity or some deeper, hidden force. When you’re finished with your body, its atoms will be recycled to further serve spirit along its upward journey toward ever more complex and useful forms. Celebrate that you get to participate in such a beautiful process.
– Take more risks. Each of us descended from an incredibly long and unbroken series of creatures who survived long enough to reproduce, and so we’re instinctively wired for survival. This makes us fearful of death but not fearful of living wrong. Ignoring mortality encourages the belief that we have something to lose. But it’s merely a question of when, not if. You’re not risking your life, you’re risking the time you have left, and what you could’ve experienced and accomplished in that time. It’s possible to carry this too far and take too many risks, but most people take too few, and as a result they live unnecessarily small lives. Life shouldn’t be safe; death will be safe.
– Pursue meaning. Some people don’t like to think about mortality because they fear that it renders life meaningless. But the transience of life renders the search for meaning not absurd, but urgent. This fear results from a focus on the self as a source of meaning. But you can create meaning that death can’t destroy by looking outside yourself. Make a small difference each day by increasing the happiness and reducing the suffering of those around you. Make a big difference over the course of your life by changing the world a little at a time. Do something to let the future know you were here.
– Live urgently. Trying to prepare for death is largely futile. Once you’re living your ideal life you’ll love every day and won’t want it to end. Closure is impossible. The best you can do to prepare is to do everything you want to do, as often as you can. Value your time highly and make the most of every day.
Also, not only is your time finite, but you probably won’t know in advance when your branch will break. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. So sing and dance while you can. Tell people how you feel about them, repair regrets, and forgive. And don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to stand as the last thing you ever say to them.
Don’t make a practice of ruminating on your mortality, it’s depressing and counterproductive. Factor it in to your behavior and then get on with living. Think about it only to the extent that it improves your life, by cultivating gratitude, compassion, selflessness, health, boldness, urgency, and meaning.