Ten years ago my 40th birthday came and went with barely a trace. I was focused on building my business and on my four year old son and ten month old daughter. Another year on the clock, even if it took me into another decade, had no meaning or significance for me.
Ten years on, as I approach my 50th birthday, it all seems very different. Becoming 50 feels like a major transition, a significant staging point on my journey though life. Why? What is it about this mid-life transition (whenever it falls for us each personally) that gives it such force? One aspect is eloquently expressed by the poet John O'Donohoe:
"There is a presence who walks the road of life with you. This presence accompanies your every moment. It shadows your every thought and feeling. On your own, or with others, it is always there with you. When you were born, it came out of the womb with you; with the e xcitement of your arrival, nobody noticed it. Though this presence surrounds you, you may still be blind to its companionship. The name of this presence is death." (Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, 1997, page 243).
This blindness, aided by a younger me's belief that I was going to live for ever, has begun to lift as my parents age, my children grow, and my body, as Leonard Cohen so starkly puts it, "aches in the places where I used to play". There are other factors too. As I write this, I am sitting in a train in the Vale of Evesham which an hour ago hit a van full of fruit pickers which was crossing an unmanned level crossing. We have just heard that at least three are dead. There are always reminders of the fragility of this life. So, although there is (probably) quite a bit of time left, for me it is visibly running out.
We try to blot out death, to never grow old and to stay young forever because we (or at least our egos) fear death. We believe that if we let in an awareness of death it will obliterate us. And yet, as many writers have observed, it is precisely this awareness of death that can allow us to live life to the fullest to be most alive.
Carlos Castaneda explains how to approach this awareness "To be a warrior a man has to be, first of all, and rightfully so, keenly aware of his own death. But to be concerned with death would force any one of us to focus on the self and that would be debilitating. So the next thing one needs to be a warrior is detachment. The idea of imminent death, instead of becoming an obsession, becomes an indifference."
Easier said than done! But, as I approach my halfcentury, I find myself drawn to the challenge of not just being aware of death but seeing it as an ally. If I can prevent myself from being overwhelmed by it, being able to live with the awareness that I will die creates the impetus to align my life with what is fundamentally of importance to me. Just as the oft used coaching question "What would you like your epitaph to be?" connects me to a bigger context, so the awareness of the presence of death connects me to my sense of purpose and brings that purpose into the present moment.
If I also recognise that death is inevitable and unavoidable, then I realise too that there is no point in wasting my energy in worrying about it. Instead I can use its presence to sharpen my thinking and connect me to what is of real importance in my life. Again, as Casteneda says: "A warrior thinks of death when things become unclear."
This was written in 2003