Finding Clarity and Purpose in the Fear of Death

I feel like I too easily grow complacent with life, as the drudgery of my routine experience ebbs and flows from day to day, month to month, and year to year. Everything has its place, is endlessly predictable, and seems to bleed on forever in the same old fashion. It’s so easy to seek comfortability, an unburdened life free from the cumbersome avenues and adversities that draw our attention to the bigger questions and to what’s truly important.

            I feel myself seeking the path of least resistance far too often. I want a sense of urgency and challenge. Not in the “I must put a ton of pressure on myself right now to get all this shit done” sense, but an urgency that comes with an exuberant zest for life, like an “I am alive and I am a world of bursting energy capable of endless possibilities. Let’s get this shit done!” sense.

            Sometimes, what that takes for us is an uncomfortable brush with our own mortality. I was listening to a podcast recently about a man who had an awakening car crash at 19 that forever changed the trajectory of his life and his purpose. He had the whole experience of his life flashing before his eyes and as he sat bleeding next to his car, literally watching the life drain from his body, he was forced to confront the big questions. “Did I live my life the way I wanted to? Did I truly love others, unapologetically and without fear? Did my life matter?” His experience that day changed his life forever, and he now lives each day with appreciation and purpose as a successful entrepreneur helping others.

            I listened to the podcast thinking about how important those questions are, not at the edge of our death, but for everyday use and purpose. We grow so complacent and stagnant through our routines and comforts, sometimes I wish we could all have eye opening experiences like that, but perhaps less dramatic.

Well, a less dramatic event happened this week as I was flying home which made me think those same thoughts and ask those same questions. While it was nowhere near as dramatic or on the verge of death that the man’s story in the podcast was, my mind went to places it doesn’t normally go and I was forced to think about my own mortality.

            I was on a plane from California to Tennessee, heading home for the holidays. I can get bad anxiety while flying which borders on panic attacks so often times I drink before a flight. I didn’t this day because I wanted a clear head for meeting the family. Flying always makes me nervous. I guess its perhaps the perceived loss of control. I am far more likely to be killed in a car crash statistically speaking but I hardly ever think about getting in a fatal collision every time I get behind the wheel. I guess in my mind I think at least I have some control over my car and my situation. But on a plane, there is nothing you can do. You are on a speeding bullet whirling through the sky and all you can do in the event that something goes wrong is brace yourself.

            We were about halfway through our flight, somewhere over Texas or Oklahoma, when the pilot made multiple announcements about how we would be hitting rough air. For me, turbulence only exacerbates any fears I have about flying. My mind started racing more than usual as we hit the first patch of rough air. The turbulence was jarring for a couple of minutes and I felt myself on the verge of a panic attack as the anticipation of more and worse turbulence crossed my mind.

            In that moment, it’s amazing all of the thoughts that flood your mind. I imagined the whole scenario of the engine stalling out or lightening striking the plane. I imagined what I would do as our plane plunged violently to the earth as we all sat helplessly and awaited our imminent demise. I thought about my family reading about the plane crash in the newspaper. I thought about what those final moments would be like before death. Would it be in slow motion for me? Would I slowly perceive it all as the crunching metal and flames slowly consumed and destroyed my body? Would there be pain? I imagined the blackness of death taking over and the finality of it all.

            I felt the fear furiously churning within me and at first, I tried to distract myself. I tried to think of anything else. I tried thinking of pleasant scenery. I tried deep breathing. I tried meditation. Nothing was working and then it hit me. Why am I trying to diminish my fear, which is naturally occurring? I decided to give up, to let the fear consume and envelop me in its static web of chaos and disarray. I confronted the possibility of death. It was right there. And then the questions came. Those same questions that man from the podcast had asked himself. “What am I doing with my life? Time is so finite and precious. What will I be remembered for?” Suddenly a sense of urgency came over me. I had to get off the plane. I had to get back out there, back in the world. There was still so much to be done….I didn’t want it to end.

            Perhaps that is bit of a dramatic reaction to a bit of turbulence, but I took it as a lesson all the same. I too easily give up my power in life to other things. I too easily sink into a stagnant state, taking these precious moments for granted, thinking they will always be there waiting for me. They won’t. I want to live each of my days with these important questions in my head. I want to be realigned each and every day with what matters. I want to live out my purpose, I want to love without fear, and I want to treat each moment with appreciation and gratitude. This may be my only chance.

I usually try to discourage fear from my life because I feel it can lead to destructive thoughts and feelings, but there are instances where it can be invigorating and revitalizing. Sometimes we need the fear, the vulnerability, and the confrontation with our own precious mortality to show us how to live and to love in our own way, while we still can. ❤

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