Widgets Magazine

Facing our mortality

Millions of wildebeest scurry south every year, away from the barren Maasai Mara towards the lush fields of the Serengeti. As they move south, thousands nest on the banks of the crocodile-infested Grumeti and Mara rivers. They kick and head-butt the air as they wait for one of their own to pierce south, through the river.

Next to them: a line of 50 1980’s Land Cruisers, each packed with six tourists and a Kenyan driver. The driver sits upright, his foot gently rests on the accelerator, both his hands clench the wheel. He’s ready to get his passengers the best seat for the show. In the back, the tourists fidget with their oversized lenses, ready to capture the perfect shot.

A jittery buzz of fear and excitement engulfs the plain.

Here in the wild, death is intertwined with life. It is raw and very real, an in-your-face fact of life. It’s not uncommon to see thousands of drowned wildebeest offspring and partially eaten carcases floating down the river.

As I write about this scene from my memory of Africa, I sit in the warm sunshine of Tresidder courtyard, sipping my freshly squeezed mint-kale mojito. Death and the struggle to live seem otherworldly and distant.

While there is good reason for this — and I am glad for it — the bubble-wrapped comfort of our lives, particularly at Stanford, can separate us from the outside world, from nature’s laws, from our own mortality: the fact that you or someone you love will die.

But why is this important? Because our struggle to do good, and to be good, depends on how we face two facts of life: our mortality and our fear of it.

When we fear death, we put it in places: cemeteries, memorials and graveyards, and we leave it there. We cover stories of pain, struggle, sacrifice, heartbreak and suffering with well polished granite tombstones engraved with the perfect quote, in perfect symmetrical alignment with the tombstones in front, behind, to the left and to the right. Death is overwhelming; judging our actions and ourselves while considering the fact that you or someone you love could die tomorrow is taxing and scary. So, we tuck it away. We cover it. We cook the rawness out of it.

This largely helps to bring us comfort and to create an illusion that we are separate from it. And this separation between us and our own mortality can leave us less accountable for how we live our lives.

We rationalize things that matter less, we follow the crowds, we prioritize the wrong things, we give less to the people around us, we fail to criticize our actions because it is easier than having to face our fears, we refuse to make changes.

You choose work over coffee, your phone over your friend across the table that needs you and even comfort and pride over talking to the beautiful girl sitting on the steps outside the bookstore.

But in doing so we miss the benefits in facing our own mortality, for it is our mortality that forces us to create meaning in our lives, to be good and to do good.

Seneca, echoed this two thousand years ago, in “On the Shortness of Life”: It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.

When we accept our mortality, we make the most of everyday, we live fully, we seek meaning. We are open to live differently, to make changes to ourselves, to accept uncertainty and to change our priorities. Subsequently, we change and for the better.

We hug our friends a little bit longer. We smile a little bit wider. We laugh a little bit louder.

We do our own thing. We give more. We seek to fill our souls with more of the “good stuff.” We strive every day to become better people. We are more grateful for the things and people in our life.


Contact Gurinder Nagra at gnagra ‘at’ stanford.edu.