Yalom meant that the recognition of death awakens an appreciation of the wonder of being alive. Beyond wonder, it also awakens us to the possibilities of being alive, and frees us from being weighed down too much. After all the race is only so long, run it as well as you can. Ultimately we have nothing to lose by taking a leap, and possibly lots to gain. Jump! If the consequences are bad, it will not be forever. Awareness of our finitude can give us courage.
Nobody said that life would be easy; the conditions are sometimes unfair and stacked against us. We are only partially free. On the basis of insufficient knowledge and limited ability we must make all important decisions. And yet we are responsible for the outcome, for we must carry it. But if we avoid the cost that comes with committing and taking a leap - the anxiety before, the regret afterwards - then we retreat to a narrow life like of T.S.Eliot's J Alfred Prufrock:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
Do I dare Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all -
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
So how should I presume?
Prufrock might receive a slap in the face for his gamble. Well, he might have received one, except that in order to avoid the risk he chooses never to act. He will never know what might have happened if he ascended the stair. He is living a half-life. He is not living the rich possibilities open to him. Including the ones he cannot even imagine.
To dare to act in risky conditions requires that we learn to forgive ourselves again and again. People punish themselves for lacking the wisdom of hindsight. They hate themselves for lacking superior talents. We think that if I am not very good, then I must be very bad; if not very clever, then very stupid. But imagine accepting the truth that I am neither so amazing nor so terrible - both are grandiose - but that I am a normal human being? But one set here mysteriously, by this universe. I can nonetheless create something worthwhile, significant, and even wonderful.
Humility is the beginning of wisdom. Humility will set you free. Your achievements are not about you, they are about the things you love. If you leap and fall, get back up again. Who cares? It takes humility to stop punishing ourselves and instead to live some real life in the short time we have. To treat life as a gift, instead of a source of achievement or shame. And thereby to let ourselves discover that mysterious feeling, like a pure gift, that regardless of death, somehow it is all worthwhile.
Author: Matthew Bishop