When You Learn How to Die, You Learn How to Live

by Alexander Heyne · 20 comments

“When you learn how to die, you truly learn how to live.”

- Tuesdays With Morrie

Tomorrow is my 26th birthday. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the following question:

If it were my last one, would I be happy with what I’ve done with my life?

Not in an egoic, “look at all the shit I’ve accomplished” type way. More of an “am I doing what I really am meant to do?” kind of way.

Would I be happy dying at 26 knowing that I’ve found my path, and have truly lived?

People have it all backwards

The above quote – when you learn how to die, you learn how to truly live – is something from Tuesdays with Morrie.

Morrie was a terminally ill professor giving his friend / former student lessons in life. And towards the end of his life, his teachings became increasingly spiritual.

One of the practices he took up was something that many Buddhists are familiar with:

Every day when you wake up, imagine a bird on your shoulder. It says: “is today the day? Am I doing everything that I need to do? Would I be content if this were my last day? Am I truly living? Is my life worth anything – is it meaningful? Am I being the person I want to be, and living the life I want?”

When You’re Dying It Cuts Away the Fat in Life

If I were actually dying, what would be the top things that are the most important to me in life? How would I actually live?

A couple months back I talked about a young friend who died of cancer – he told me about how he spent his entire life acquiring stuff to fill his NYC apartment. Literally, 20 years of work just to buy clothes and furniture for a nice bachelor pad, that now he was all giving away because he’d be dust soon.

So I thought about it: how would actually live? How would I maximize each day? What would change?

I came up with a list:

  • When you’re dying, 95% of the shit you go through every day is totally and utterly unimportant.  Bitching at people in traffic. Useless. Complaining about being shortchanged a dollar.  A job you hate, that you go to just so you can pay your bills in a lifestyle you hate. Reading celebrity magazines. None of that shit means anything. Dying just makes you realize it.
  • When you’re dying, most of the physical shit doesn’t matter anymore. Meaning takes more importance. People, higher meaning, work that is fucking sweet, finding your work, travel and experiences all take the foreground.
  • Everything you do really is special. I challenge those of you in a relationship to do something that is a reminder of this: Next time you kiss your girlfriend/boyfriend, spend 30 seconds and really be present. Pretend it’s the first and last kiss of your life – feel the texture of the lips, slow down and turn a one second kiss into a ten second kiss, then a 30 second kiss. Use all your senses. That’s why dying makes you feel alive. 

Most Of What You Do Everyday is Meaningless – Dying Just Makes You Realize It

Think about how inconsequential most of your day is.  It blows my mind that most people live this way. It terrifies me actually.

I creeped on my friend and asked about how most of his day went recently. It sounded like this:

Wake up at 7 (eh), go to work (eh), sit in meetings (FML), get lunch (yay!), work till 6 (eh), come home and watch tv (eh), play video games (eh), hang out with the girl (yay!), sleep. Rinse and repeat.

6/7 days of the week for him are “eh.” How is that not the most terrifying prospect in the world? If that doesn’t scare the shit out of you then I think you need to dial down the Zanex and start feeling human again.

Okay, I get it, having work that is fun is incredibly hard .I know. Been there. It’s not easy.  But that’s not my point.

My point is that your behavior would really change if you honestly lived like you were dying. And “YOLO” type bullshit isn’t the answer.

When you’re dying, small talk is fucking poison. You cut right to the heart of it and talk about life with strangers.

When you don’t have much time left, you realize how exhausting getting angry is. “No point” you tell yourself.

When you’re staring at the countdown clock, everything ordinary takes on extraordinary meaning.  Kisses are no longer kisses.  Smiling is no longer just smiling. Doing your work is not just work. They become sacred.

People become special. You understand the impact of one bad mood on another person. You understand the weight of being nice to someone even when you shouldn’t.  Everything becomes special.

Everything is special – but only if you act like it

Just like that kiss I talked about – if you kiss your partner ever day and just act like it’s a typical “good morning!” kiss, that’s all it becomes.

But what would happen if you treated it as an end of the world kiss? What would it be like if you were watching a massive nuclear war go down on TV and this was the last 5 minutes you had. What would that kiss be like? What was an ordinary kiss 1,000s of times before now becomes an extraordinary one. And it just took that intention to make it special.

I think this is just all the long way of me saying this: you never have enough time. I really want you to try to feel how urgent and important it is that you start going for the real stuff in life.  Forget all the other shit. The more you wake up to this, the more you’ll help others wake up and realize it too.

It’s time to wake up. When you learn how to truly die – when you spot what’s essential to life and what’s just excess filler, every day is perfect, because it’s filled only with the essential.

When you’re dying, that peck on the cheek becomes a 30 second kiss of perfection.  No wonder it makes you feel so alive.

When you’re dying, finding “your work” doesn’t become a side hobby, but an overwhelming quest in your life.

When you’re dying, things that people walk by every day take on extraordinary importance. Life is fucking magic.

So, as a little birthday meditation, I challenge you guys to ponder something that virtually everyone knows, but almost no one lives:

None of us have time. We just think we do.


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