We Must Die in Order to Live
The teachings of a friend, an author, a mythic hero, and virtually every religion out there.
Originally published in: A Philosopher’s Stone
Story telling, a love and appreciation of language, and nerding out over the discover of new vocabulary are, for me, excellent foundations for a lasting friendship.
Many of my closest friends often possess this same captivation, and it was one such person that once recommended I read his all time favorite book: The King Must Die, by Mary Renault.
This was not an endorsement I took lightly.
You know when someone asks you what your favorite movie or song is? As if it’s some easy thing to choose from the staggering quantity of titles available to us today? Not even counting our love of a favorite children’s movie or book that your aunt read to you over a thousand times when you were little (if you haven’t been exposed to the wonder of Rumplestiltskin, I’d encourage you to change that).
So when my friend told me, without hesitation, that this was his favorite book, I was excited.
The novel is about Theseus whom, if you’re unfamiliar, is amongst the most famous of Greek heroes. I’ve always been a geek for stories of mediaeval heroism, of battles with swords and fair maidens and ripped dudes donning provocative leather underwear.
This book, however, presents this familiar mythic figure in a different light. Instead of being a hero of arrogance and Herculean feats of strength, the author casts him as a champion of the internal; someone of unrelenting will and adherence to his moral code. Renault thusly tells a more anthropologically sound tale, one without the physical manifestation of immortal gods or some of the more fantastical elements inherent to Greek myth.
The most important lesson that I gleaned from this book, and from my friend, is that we must die in order to live.
Dying in order to live can be construed to mean a myriad of things. I took it the lessons with a grain of salt; if you literally died, of course, you’d cease to exist in this physical form and any further lessons would have little merit.
The prospect of death, in this context, redefined how I approach the events of my life.
It meant welcoming failure, embarrassment, and ridicule at every turn. It meant that no matter the situation, time, or place, I must be willing to face the death of my ego in order to feel truly liberated. And this is the point of this article.
There is no good or bad, at least not in the black and white terms that many of us have come to understand such things.
In everything lies an opportunity for greater learning. While this concept may be difficult seemingly impossible to grasp at times, it is a truth that I nonetheless can comprehend intellectually.
The mere recognition of this life practice is one that is impossible to internalize right away. As is the case with most things, practice and patience go a long way; life is about learning, about this process.
Facing death at every turn is something that we all, whether consciously or otherwise, practice doing every moment for the entirety of our lives. Death comes for us all. I sure as hell think it’s better to make peace with this truth than to cower in the fear of losing our projection of perfection and the safety that comes with not ever being uncomfortable.
Death is not our undoing, but rather the thing that makes living worthwhile. Without the knowledge and acceptance of the reality of our inevitable death, everything would appear meaningless and inconsequential.
This then introduces a practical way that we can bring our confrontation with death into our daily lives (even, or perhaps especially, in seemingly mundane situations).
Deaths lingering presence behind us is reason enough, for example, to ask someone on a date, confronting embarrassment and fear of rejection because, hey, you’re going to die anyways!
In moments of doubt, hesitation, and fear, death’s reminder can add a lightness, joy, and absurdity to our concern with whether or not we will be liked or accepted.
It allows us to run towards failure, because the mere veracity of our being means that we have something to be excited about. It’s amazing that we can fail, because it also means we can succeed. The best part lies in the trying.
Acceptance of death helps us take those leaps that make us feel alive like speaking those uncomfortable truths that lift tremendously heavy and previously unknown weights off our shoulders. It allows us to take a deep dive into new and unfamiliar territory because of nothing but the fact that we can.
To put it simply: facing death is to live. The inverse is to never have lived at all.
He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” — Matthew 10:39
This sentiment is echoed in several religions and popular schools of thought (Stoicism, Buddhism, and Christianity to name a few).
I am an adherent to no one religion, preferring to instead find truth that serves me in whatever practices and ideologies make my life and love of the world around me better.
Finding commonalities, like this one, in so many teachings, gives me further assurance in my practice of confronting death.
This aids me in my inevitable encounters with the fear inherent to such am endeavor. Facing death at every turn requires me. As I am. In the face of rejection, of hate, of anger and a myriad of other such things, I have to show up.
While death often signifies the end to a life, this is merely one perspective. Death begets new life. Allowing a part of yourself to die, like attachment to what others think of you in the moment, for example, presents the opportunity to birth a reality ripe with love and appreciation for oneself and, by extension, for others.
Even when we sleep each night, we can learn to die as we’re lulled to sleep, begetting a refreshed gratitude for our rebirth the next morning.
To be present is also, in a way, to die: releasing our attachment to the future and our struggle with control over that which we have none.
We All Know We’re Going to Die…It’s Time to Believe It
We all know that we will die, but so many of us don’t believe it.
If we all truly, deeply came to accept our inevitable end, the world wouldn’t look the same as it currently does. We wouldn’t get lost in the vapor of materialism, of hyper-focusing on what we think of one another, on the should have’s and could have’s.
To accept death is to actively live. It is to bring about a necessary urgency in experiencing all that is available to us in the moment; because our time is finite, realization of death forces us to make changes and stop getting caught up in things that, in hindsight, are trivial and unimportant.
Our relationship with death can be tamed and then utilized in order to live a more inspired life. This, perhaps, forms the core of our human experience.