Death as the Catalyst For Life

by Gus Barber

To live is a verb. It is an action, a movement, something that happens. Yet it seems that there are not many people actively living. This is a strange concept, as we all breathe and continue to exist, but I mean living in a sense that many people do not seem to embrace. Our collective society has moved into a mindset that is constantly preoccupied with what has happened or is going to happen. We must go to school to get a job to support our families–this is the central dogma of suburbia. And in our free time between when we work to get somewhere, we are thinking about where we have been. We share facebook posts that we think are “LOL”, we check our email again or we watch another episode because we don’t think there’s anything else to do. We are always looking ahead or looking behind and in doing so, seem to be living in a very passive manner. We, as a society, are in a constant state of worrying about the future and regretting the past. As said by American neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris “the past is a memory, a thought arising in the present and the future is an idea, yet another thought. All we have is now.” (Sam Harris-Death and the Present Moment)
With the dichotomy of passive vs. active living, we always have an epiphany of sorts that causes us to temporarily switch from our normal passive selves to an actively living mindset. This epiphany is death, or extreme proximity to death. This would be the sickness that took you to the hospital, the day you almost died in a car crash or the last time you saw your grandfather dying in a hospital bed. We see death and we realize that our lives are extremely fragile and undeniably finite. This causes us to think: What am I doing? Why do I care so much about the grade I’m going to get on this one paper? The Huffington Post reported on a study of 1,200 elderly people, asking about their biggest regret. The overwhelming response was “I wish I didn’t worry so much” (Karl A. Pillemer, The Legacy Project).
When we are living in a passive manner, we don’t think about death, or at least we try not to. We don’t consciously think about our own mortality, we simply ignore it. And when we are forced to face this very simple and omnipotent fact, it shocks us into looking at what is happening in front of us instead of worrying about what we’re going to do come tax time. And I should clarify, when this epiphany occurs; it is not the same as constantly worrying about death, that we will cease to exist, it is the idea that we cannot waste the time that we have on this earth. This is the concept that snaps us into the present moment. If we can know that death is inevitable, we will see the incredible value in every moment we have alive.
In the spring of 2014, I returned to Tucson, Arizona, knowing that my grandfather was going to die. I had sat with him for the first day, and lived in the house for more than a week after, watching my grandfather fade from the earth. One night, I sat crosslegged on a boulder overlooking the Sonoran Desert, I watched the shadows of the sunset race across the ravines, chasing the quails and javelinas into their dens. I watched the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen, atop a cliff above the house of my grandfather and I saw the reality of death. At this point in my life, I had almost died after being lost in the woods, had been one loose rock away from a jagged and rocky death and had evaded more moose and bears than I can count. However, the concept of death, idea that it could happen to anybody, still eluded my understanding. Until that day.That night, I sat above the desert, watching the shadows run across the desert and I really saw how fleeting every second on this world is. That as infinitely beautiful as our world may be, I was finite and my life would be not even a blip in the universe. All I could do was live.
We cannot know for certain whether we will continue on into another world after we die. There may be an afterlife, be it reincarnation, heaven or hell, but the living don’t know and the dead remain silent on the subject. What makes death so absolutely terrifying is its mystery and its finality. We have no idea what will come next, but we know that it is a permanent condition. This life is all we know and while there might be a life after this, all we really know that we have is now. This is a very fundamental truth that we all know, yet we avoid it. We hope and we pray that there is something after this world, but the truth is, for all our hopes and prayers, we do not know. We all should hope that there is something after this place, but if this is all we really know we have, then can we really afford to waste it?
We always think that the next big thing will make us happy the new flat screen TV, the iPad that is 5% slimmer than our old one, and we work to get a job to get the next product. As Tyler Durden of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club said, “We work jobs we hate to buy shit we don’t need.”. This is the consumer society that we live in, a society focused on the next product to play Angry Birds on. We are focused on a blissful future that will somehow appear based upon the purchase of an electronic device. The trouble is, it never comes. We are always focused on the future and there is always a new product, a new future. And in this endless consumptive lifestyle, we have lost our grasp on the present. We remain blissfully ignorant of how much we waste: the resources, the energy, the money. But what we really waste, what we really cannot afford to lose is time. We lose the ability to enjoy the time we have if we constantly work toward a future that never arrives.
Death is inevitable; our lives will come to an end. But as depressing as this fact may be, we do have the ability to change and control what we do right now. We cannot change the past, it is a memory, already dead and catalogued. We do not know what the future holds, for it is unreachable, always just around the corner. But what we actually have is this moment. We can choose what we do now. I could spend every moment out of school studying and revising essays and preparing for tests to get straight A’s to get into an Ivy League school to become a doctor and make tons of money, but I believe I would grow old and regret worrying so much over the pursuit of happiness. I live instead to climb, because that is what I have found that makes me happiest. Instead of pursuing happiness, I make time to be happy climbing. As Jack Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums: “In the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”




About the Author: “I am 18, born and raised in Alaska and the wilderness that lies within it’s borders. I am an outdoorsman with a deep infatuation for nature, climbing and diving. I am also a member of the Early Honors program here at APU, and hope to later study physics and outdoor studies.”


  • Jackson P

    Lets start with this, You are the best essay writer I’ve ever seen. You’re opening statement and vocab were one of the best. Seriously. I’ll tell you that reading you’re essay I got sucked in and was in awe by the end. I hope you continue to write and put more things out.

    • Walt Simmons

      Leave your legacy, enlightment has no end. Peace in one’s mind can be found through processes of living a life of lies, deceptions, or even misperceptions. One gains understanding to manifest reason, or misunderstanding to justify one’s reason. You’ll constantly experience the pull of greatness inside of you Gus…. Remain ready for those moments, some will offer only reflection. People like you and I feed from horizons that promises could never provide, we’re sustained through intellectual growth… One’s consciousness will forever be insatiable. Leadership will be your destination or destiny, just always remember both come with very distinctive outcomes, title without substance” destination”, legendary through all sacrifice” destiny. I leave this with nothing but respect for a great mind, all of us hold that capability, you’ve awoke yours… Stay woke!!


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