To Live While We're Alive

My grandfather is over 90 years old. Whenever I visited, he would slowly sit up on the side of his wooden bed, a creak of old bones followed each movement, and greet me with a fragile voice.

His back slightly hunched. A fringe of white hair, as thin as spider silk, hung loosely across his wizened forehead. The crow's feet at the corner of his eyes sank deeper as my grandfather set his eyes on the distance. He sometimes nodded as I started speaking about the weather, the family, my study and all other trivial things, his eyes still fixed at the distance.

My grandfather is an artist who can no longer make art, because of what his age brings.I recalled countless hours of my childhood gaping at him writing poem, practicing calligraphy, painting, crafting wood - my grandfather in his most alive form.

Witnessing my grandmother took the last breath, watching my grandfather slowly fade away, and experiencing a fatal bus accident made me aware of life's inevitable guest: death; and his silent medium: time.

Being probably the only kind that spends the course of its life while knowing of death, human is arguably, among all creatures, the one spend their time most unwisely.

Many would kill or pay fortune to postpone death; few practiced mindfulness - the art of slowing down time; and fewer walked the only road to immortality: meaningful creation - playing the role each was born to play in this world

We are stingy with the stuff we acquire and the money we saved. Yet, we fritter away our most valuable, irretrievable resource: time. We spent hours tormenting ourselves over what we should put on our body or add to our egotistic collection: which clothes, which jewellery, which beauty product, which phone, which car.

But we are non-selective when it comes to what goes into our body, our mind, our soul. We watch mindless television, listen to idiotic songs, spend time on pointless conversation, with people we don't even like.

“Life is too short not to work hard!” we thought. So, we kept our heads down. Hustle. Hustle. We pin the "huge workload" status on our chest as a badge of honor. We complained about our "crazy day" with a sense of pride. We mistake busyness for meaningfulness.

We did not know that "Work is a blessing when it helps us to think about what we are doing. But is becomes a curse when its only use is to prevent us from thinking about what our life means" (Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River)

We certainly cannot sit still for a minute to ponder the big question: "What is the meaning of my life?”  Because if we don’t do stuff we don’t feel important, and then how do we justify our existence? 

Taking a closer look at the lives of admirable individuals, it’s easy to notice that most of them use death as the catalyst for living.

Steve Jobs famously said: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.” 

Famous author and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin read memoirs of catastrophe to heighten awareness that death and catastrophe bring, during her happiness project (which was later described in "The Happiness Project" book).

Austin Kleon, in his creativity phenomenon "Show Your Work", advised young artist to read obituaries because "reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine".

I think few could give advice on death and time in such a way did by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the pioneer in near-death studies and the author “On Death and Dying”:

“It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we're alive - to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.”

I thought that to maintain the awareness of something so constant and obvious such as time and death, not to be paralysed but to be encouraged by it, is what we all need to master. This awareness, like an alarm clock, gently wakes me up every morning, reminds me to contemplate wonders hidden in most humble corners of life.

A purple flower blossomed on the side walk, the smell of a freshly made cup of green tea and the bitter sweet taste it left at the back of my tongue, a breeze in a hot summer day brushed against my neck.

The hourglass on the writing desk in my home office urged me to show up for the diligent process of a writer, despite all fear. Like a sycamore in a tropical forest, a hummingbird in a deserted island, they know its reason to exist, being a note in the magnificent symphony of life.

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Photo Credit: Erik Fitzpatrick