A Final Thought: When Death Comes to Find You...


By Mitch Allen

I have come to believe we experience life in three ways: One is our memories; the second is our expectations (our hopes and worries); and the third is where the first two meet—in the current moment.

Importantly, our deepest, longest lasting memories are the ones formed when the current moment unfolds differently from our expectations, that is, when we are utterly surprised, like the time I hit my golf ball over the green on a course on Lake Eufaula, Alabama, only to watch a 10-foot alligator swim onto the bank, take my golf ball in her teeth, and swim away with it. Or the time my brother’s fiancée called and asked me to pull over to the side of road because she had something to tell me. I knew she was going to say my father had died, but she said “brother” instead, and her words forever stained my heart in ways that both destroyed me and inspired me.

If our concept of life is made up of expectations, memories, and the unfolding present, then it seems a rich life—one filled with strong memories—is one in which the present unfolds contrary to our expectations. So to improve our lives, shouldn’t we daily put ourselves in situations where we are more likely to be surprised? Travel broadly, take a different route home from work, shop in a new grocery store, engage in conversations with strangers, try a new recipe.

But we humans don’t like to be surprised. We are genetically predisposed to crave sameness. That distant ancestor who thought it would be a good idea to explore a new area of the savannah soon discovered—to his peril—that is where the lions live.

Sadly, the older I get the more I don’t want to be surprised. I don’t want a new show to binge watch. I’m fine with “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” I don’t want to try new restaurants, meet new people. I don’t want to take chances. As a result, all my memories are becoming covered in cobwebs—all those times years ago when something happened that was different from my expectations.

Even in our golden years, we should be able to recall what happened last Tuesday, but we cannot. That’s because everything that happened last Tuesday happened just as we expected. Without risk, last Tuesday is no different from last Monday or last Wednesday.

Opening ourselves up to new experiences is indeed a risk—for sometimes we will be surprised and delighted and sometimes disappointed. But when we begin to prefer boredom over disappointment, we have surely peaked.

I don’t want all my memories to be old. I don’t want all the music I enjoy to be from the 1960s and ’70s. I don’t want all my dream girls to have perms and shoulder pads as if they just stepped off the set of the TV show “Dallas.”

I want to go to Mars, to discover a decent gluten-free bread, to play online games with my grandsons without explaining how excited we used to get playing Asteroids and Space Invaders.

The cool thing about the mind is that it’s infinite. A new memory doesn’t take the place of an old one. It enhances it, holds it in its hands, turns it around and reconsiders it from a new perspective. An unexpected experience brings new life and insight to old memories. This is key to a long life well-lived.

I leave you with a few quotes from poet Mary Oliver. The first is the final line of her “The Summer Day”:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

And the last line of her “When Death Comes”:
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

From her “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches”:
Listen--are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

And from mythologist Joseph Campbell:
The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.

Finally, from my dear friend Dr. Kwame Scruggs: When death comes to find you, may it find you alive.


Categories: Smart Living