If you have been following WeZBest, you probably noticed I haven’t posted any blog article since November 2017. I have been writing, re-writing, and putting off this very article for over half a year, but a recent event spurred me to finish it.
In one of my favorite books by Dr. Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, he pointed out a profound hypothesis by Stanford scholar Laura Carstensen—“socioemotional selectivity theory”—our perspectives on time can largely impact how we view life:
“How we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have. When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do now worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you “the world is your oyster,” “the sky is the limit,” and so on. And you are willing to delay gratification—to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future. You seek to plug into bigger streams of knowledge and information. You widen your networks of friends and connections, instead of hanging out with your mother. When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid—achievement, creativity, and other attributes of “self-actualization.” But as your horizons contract—when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.”
When I first read Being Mortal and wrote a blog article about it, I have never had any experience of death outside actuarial mortality modeling. I didn’t truly understand the meaning of this word “limit,” especially when it comes to the time we have on this earth.
In the past half a year, for the first time in my life, I had to deal with the passing of family members and friends. I gained some new perspectives on life I never had before.
I received an unexpected call from Dad: “龙龙，你奶奶去世了。” He informed me that my grandmother passed away in sleep the previous night. I hung up the phone in utter disbelief. My dad’s message echoed in my head. I had a hard time believing that’s true. “How can it be?” I repeatedly asked myself as I remember she was still healthy last summer when I visited her in China.
The Monday after Grandma’s passing dawned a dreary overcast day. After obtaining a bereavement leave from work, I went to the airport with my dad to fly back to our hometown in China where my grandma’s funeral would be held. On the plane, I couldn’t stop but thinking about my time in the elementary school when she lived with my parents and me… I wished I spent more time with her in the 2016 summer when I visited. I felt sad when I realized I would never be able to hold her hands again.
Picture of me and Grandma: 1993/1994 and 2016
I received an unexpected email at work: a fellow colleague with whom I interned together in 2014 was found lifeless in his apartment. I could not believe my eyes; I had lunch with him in the cafeteria just a few weeks ago. I read the email over and over again and heard a voice screaming in my head, “HOW?” and “WHY?”
The week after the sad news was announced, the office was quieter than usual. This colleague and I have not worked in the same team; however, his musical talent as a guitarist made a lasting impression on me in 2014 when we interned together. We lived in the same corporate apartment that summer, so I got to hear his music as he was writing a new song. Once it was created, we adventured onto the apartment building’s “balcony” by climbing through the bathroom window to record a music video. He was the rock star, and I was the cameraman. He later named the music video Oakwood—the name of the apartment building we lived. I’m listening to Oakwood while writing this; it saddened me that I would not be able to see him play the guitar again.
Last month (June 2018):
One day my Facebook newsfeed was suddenly flooded with photos of a former classmate from Lakeland High School. Among the Facebook posts, I found a local news report, “man drowned in a kayak accident.”
This sudden loss shocked the entire Lakeland Class of 2012. In the local news report, many Lakeland classmates recounted how much joy he has brought to those around him through his positivity and contagious smiles. Another soul lost too young. Our Lakeland high school reunion would never be the same again.
These losses are tragic. I had to confront the fact that they have happened, and nothing can be done to reverse the reality of death. So what is the reality of death? I asked myself, and more questions emerged.
- Why do people die? And what does death mean to those who die?
- What does death mean to those they leave behind?
Still exploring the answers, I want to share some of my thoughts from reflecting on my experience from the past few months.
Why do people die? While science taught me that there are two types of reasons: natural and unnatural causes, I’ve been exploring this question on the spiritual level. Is death at a certain time due to a certain cause a predestined event? And what happens after someone dies? Different religions would explain this very differently (check out this infographic by National Post below that summarizes how different religions view death).
A straight line living in the first dimension would not see the height of a square; a square living on a two-dimensional plane would not see the depth of a cube. Similarly, human’s ability to understand the ultimate truth is also limited by the worldly dimension we live in.
As you may tell from reading this blog, I often write in the style of a self-help book where I pose a question, quote expert opinions, and give answers. I was tempted to quote Steve Jobs that “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.” But then I realize this quotation only further muddles the mysterious nature of death.
I am still left asking myself the same questions that inspired me to write this article or perhaps to help me cope with the death of loved ones. In hopes to give you a definitive millennial’s view on death, I have been writing, re-writing, and putting off this very article for over half a year. Unlike any other blog posts I have written, these questions about death continued to baffle me. I can’t summarize what death means. I can’t tell you why people die. While I may not have answers, I take a step forward to free myself from this paralysis by honoring the recent deaths of loved ones, reflecting on how I coped this year, and appreciating the memories while seizing the present.
In Part 2 of this article, I’ll reflect on what death means to those whom our loved ones left behind—life.