Last night, I woke up terrified from a nightmare. I lay in bed, heart racing, breathing in ragged gasps as I struggled to remember which reality I was in: my safe comfortable one or the horrid terrifying one I’d been dreaming. As safety and comfort began to seep in, as I heard the steady sleep-breathing of my darling wife and the loud rumbling purr as my cat realized I was awake, my own breath steadied and my heart settled.
I re-hashed my nightmare: the world was doomed by a giant comet and all life was going to die. All of it, not just humans. There was no way out, no one-in-a-million chance to save us all – we were all a few scant days from death. Fear and insanity had taken most people, and there were riots and chaos. My friends and I were banding together to spend our last days together, loving each other and trying to make the most of the end.
And then it hit me.
We’re afraid of death because we might not get all our to-dos done.
(note: There’s also the very real fear of the unknown, but that’s not my point here.)
It’s like going to bed at night: it’s hard to sleep with all those open loops in your head. Did you email the right people? Get back to the ones you said you’d get back to? Finish that important business thing? Forget anything? Is the water off, the dishes done, the cats fed?
Good gods, it’s a wonder any of us ever sleep.
And sleep is only a break. Can you imagine preparing every day to be the last one? Then it’d be even worse – did you say all the things that needed saying? Did you give all the hugs that needed giving? Smile all the right smiles, cry all the right tears? Tell everyone you love that you love them? Did you see all the places you wanted to see, do all the things you wanted to do? Finish everything? Is the water off? Are the dishes done, the cats fed? Is your underwear clean?
We’d never sleep! Who can sleep with so much to do?!
It’s terrifying. It sure scares me silly.
So I took several deep breaths. What did I forget to do today that I’d really regret if I didn’t wake up in the morning (considering I was able to have regrets)?
My list was surprisingly short: I didn’t tell my little boy that I love him today (he’s in Dallas with his grandmom and uncle, and I didn’t talk to him). I must fix that – it needs saying every day, even when he’s gone. I didn’t tell my best friends how incredibly fucking awesome they are – in fact, there are a slew of people I want to tell that to (so I’d best get on it). I didn’t remind my parents and my brother that I love them. I haven’t seen enough of the world yet, and I haven’t changed enough of the world yet. There are a few other things, but in general, if I didn’t make it through the night, I’d be pretty satisfied with what I got done while I was here.
If I had a long to-do list one day, I might not finish it before I needed to go to bed. We all have to sleep eventually.
If I have a long life to-do list, I might not finish it before I need to move on. We all have to die eventually.
The fear of dying stems from our fear of not getting things done. We can’t invest money if we’re dead. We can’t go shopping. We can’t conduct that all-important (or is it?) business meeting. We can’t watch our kids grow up. We can’t meet our grandkids. We can’t fall in love, can’t fight, can’t break up. Can’t hurt. Can’t heal. It’s the ultimate end to our ultimate day.
But if we live each day – not afraid – but aware that it could be our last, maybe we can shorten our ultimate to-do list. Figure out what your big rocks are and get them in your jar first. And, each night before you end your day, figure out what needs to be done (did you tell your partners or kids or friends you love them? are the cats fed?). Do it. Then sleep, and rest well.