I step from rock to rock, climbing steadily, leg muscles stretching and aching. In that trancelike state that comes from slow, repetitive physical exertion, I’m nearing the top. The sky gets wide and deep. I’m alone now. My friends are far below me, taking pictures of the ocean.
Finally, I climb over a small boulder and the view opens up. I can see from here to the infinite horizon. It feels as though I’m staring at the edge of the earth, where water meets the sky, blue on blue. The wind screams across my skin. I look up. It’s bright. It’s beautiful.
I’m at South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, once thought to be the southern tip of Africa and the southernmost point in the world. It’s a tumultuous place, a place full of storms and treacherous waters. A place that’s seen centuries of trade and commerce and human endeavor. A place, ironically, of lost hopes.
There is a saying in Portuguese: Ele dobra o Cabo da Boa Esperança. It means, “He’s rounding the Cape of Good Hope.” Ironically, it means that the person’s life is in its final phase, that he’s incapable of accomplishing anything more.
I step across the rocks toward the blue, allowing its vastness to engulf my field of vision. I’m sweating yet cold. Excited yet nervous. Is this it?
The wind is slapping my ears. I hear nothing, but I see the edge: where the rock meets oblivion. I stop and stand for a moment, several yards away. I can see the ocean below, lapping and frothing against cliffs stretching out for miles to either side. The tides are furious against the impenetrable walls. Straight ahead, it’s a sheer drop of at least fifty yards to the water below.
To my right, tourists are dotted across the landscape below, snapping photos and aggregating themselves into antlike formations. To my left is Asia. In front of me is the sky and behind is me is everything I’ve ever hoped for and brought with me.
What if this is it? What if this is all there is?
I look around. I’m alone. I take my first step toward the edge of the cliff.
The human body seems to come equipped with a natural radar for death-inducing situations. For example, the moment you get within about ten feet of a cliff edge, minus guardrail, a certain tension digs into your body. Your back stiffens. Your skin ripples. Your eyes become hyperfocused on every detail of your environment. Your feet feel as though they’re made of rock. It’s as if there were a big, invisible magnet gently pulling your body back to safety.
But I fight the magnet. I drag the feet made of rock closer to the edge.
At five feet away, your mind joins the party. You can now see not only the edge of the cliff, but down the cliff face itself, which induces all sorts of unwanted visualizations of tripping and falling and tumbling to a splashy death. It’s really fucking far, your mind reminds you. Like, really fucking far. Dude, what are you doing? Stop moving. Stop it.
I tell my mind to shut up, and keep inching forward.
At three feet, your body goes into full-scale red alert. You are now within an errant shoelace-trip of your life ending. It feels as though a hefty gust of wind could send you sailing off into that blue-bisected eternity. Your legs shake. As do your hands. As does your voice, in case you need to remind yourself you’re not about to plummet to your death.
The three-foot distance is most people’s absolute limit. It’s just close enough to lean forward and catch a glimpse of the bottom, but still far enough to feel as though you’re not at any real risk of killing yourself. Standing that close to the edge of a cliff, even one as beautiful and mesmerizing as the Cape of Good Hope, induces a heady sense of vertigo, and threatens to regurgitate any recent meal.
Is this it? Is this all there is? Do I already know everything I will ever know?
I take another microstep, then another. Two feet now. My forward leg vibrates as I put the weight of my body on it. I shuffle on. Against the magnet. Against my mind. Against all my better instincts for survival.
One foot now. I’m now looking straight down the cliff face. I feel a sudden urge to cry. My body instinctively crouches, protecting itself against something imagined and inexplicable. The wind comes in hailstorms. The thoughts come in right hooks.
At one foot you feel like you’re floating. Anything but looking straight down feels as though you’re part of the sky itself. You actually kind of expect to fall at this point.
I crouch there for a moment, catching my breath, collecting my thoughts. I force myself to stare down at the water hitting the rocks below me. Then I look again to my right, at the little ants milling about the signage below me, snapping photos, chasing tour buses, on the off chance that somebody somehow sees me. This desire for attention is wholly irrational. But so is all of this. It’s impossible to make me out up here, of course. And even if it weren’t, there’s nothing that those distant people could say or do.
All I hear is the wind.
Is this it?
My body shudders, the fear becoming euphoric and blinding. I focus my mind and clear my thoughts in a kind of meditation. Nothing makes you present and mindful like being mere inches away from your own death. I straighten up and look out again, and find myself smiling. I remind myself that it’s all right to die.
This willing and even exuberant interfacing with one’s own mortality has ancient roots. The Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome implored people to keep death in mind at all times, in order to appreciate life more and remain humble in the face of its adversities. In various forms of Buddhism, the practice of meditation is often taught as a means of preparing oneself for death while still remaining alive. Dissolving one’s ego into an expansive nothingness—achieving the enlightened state of nirvana—is seen as a trial run of letting oneself cross to the other side. Even Mark Twain, that hairy goofball who came in and left on Halley’s Comet, said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
Back on the cliff, I bend down, slightly leaning back. I put my hands on the ground behind me and gently lower myself onto my butt. I then gradually slide one leg over the edge of the cliff. There’s a small rock jutting out of the cliff side. I rest my foot on it. Then I slide my other foot off the edge and put it on the same small rock. I sit there a moment, leaning back on my palms, wind ruffling my hair. The anxiety is bearable now, as long as I stay focused on the horizon.
Then I sit up straight and look down the cliff again. Fear shoots back up through my spine, electrifying my limbs and laser-focusing my mind on the exact coordinates of every inch of my body. The fear is stifling at times. But each time it stifles me, I empty my thoughts, focus my attention on the bottom of the cliff below me, force myself to gaze at my potential doom, and then to simply acknowledge its existence.
I was now sitting on the edge of the world, at the southern-most tip of hope, the gateway to the east. The feeling was exhilarating. I can feel the adrenaline pumping through my body. Being so still, so conscious, never felt so thrilling. I listen to the wind and watch the ocean and look out upon the ends of the earth—and then I laugh with the light, all that it touches being good.
Confronting the reality of our own mortality is important because it obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life. While most people whittle their days chasing another buck, or a little bit more fame and attention, or a little bit more assurance that they’re right or loved, death confronts all of us with a far more painful and important question: What is your legacy?
How will the world be different and better when you’re gone? What mark will you have made? What influence will you have caused? They say that a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can cause a hurricane in Florida; well, what hurricanes will you leave in your wake?
As Becker pointed out, this is arguably the only truly important question in our life. Yet we avoid thinking about it. One, because it’s hard. Two, because it’s scary. Three, because we have no fucking clue what we’re doing.
And when we avoid this question, we let trivial and hateful values hijack our brains and take control of our desires and ambitions. Without acknowledging the ever-present gaze of death, the superficial will appear important, and the important will appear superficial. Death is the only thing we can know with any certainty. And as such, it must be the compass by which we orient all of our other values and decisions. It is the correct answer to all of the questions we should ask but never do. The only way to be comfortable with death is to understand and see yourself as something bigger than yourself; to choose values that stretch beyond serving yourself, that are simple and immediate and controllable and tolerant of the chaotic world around you. This is the basic root of all happiness. Whether you’re listening to Aristotle or the psychologists at Harvard or Jesus Christ or the goddamn Beatles, they all say that happiness comes from the same thing: caring about something greater than yourself, believing that you are a contributing component in some much larger entity, that your life is but a mere side process of some great unintelligible production. This feeling is what people go to church for; it’s what they fight in wars for; it’s what they raise families and save pensions and build bridges and invent cell phones for: this fleeting sense of being part of something greater and more unknowable than themselves.
And entitlement strips this away from us. The gravity of entitlement sucks all attention inward, toward ourselves, causing us to feel as though we are at the center of all of the problems in the universe, that we are the one suffering all of the injustices, that we are the one who deserves greatness over all others.
As alluring as it is, entitlement isolates us. Our curiosity and excitement for the world turns in upon itself and reflects our own biases and projections onto every person we meet and every event we experience. This feels sexy and enticing and may feel good for a while and sells a lot of tickets, but it’s spiritual poison.
It’s these dynamics that plague us now. We are so materially well off, yet so psychologically tormented in so many low-level and shallow ways. People relinquish all responsibility, demanding that society cater to their feelings and sensibilities. People hold on to arbitrary certainties and try to enforce them on others, often violently, in the name of some made-up righteous cause. People, high on a sense of false superiority, fall into inaction and lethargy for fear of trying something worthwhile and failing at it.
The pampering of the modern mind has resulted in a population that feels deserving of something without earning that something, a population that feels they have a right to something without sacrificing for it. People declare themselves experts, entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators, mavericks, and coaches without any real-life experience. And they do this not because they actually think they are greater than everybody else; they do it because they feel that they need to be great to be accepted in a world that broadcasts only the extraordinary.
Our culture today confuses great attention and great success, assuming them to be the same thing. But they are not.
You are great. Already. Whether you realize it or not. Whether anybody else realizes it or not. And it’s not because you launched an iPhone app, or finished school a year early, or bought yourself a sweet-ass boat. These things do not define greatness.
You are already great because in the face of endless confusion and certain death, you continue to choose what to give a fuck about and what not to. This mere fact, this simple optioning for your own values in life, already makes you beautiful, already makes you successful, and already makes you loved. Even if you don’t realize it. Even if you’re sleeping in a gutter and starving.
You too are going to die, and that’s because you too were fortunate enough to have lived. You may not feel this. But go stand on a cliff sometime, and maybe you will.
Bukowski once wrote, “We’re all going to die, all of us. What a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by life’s trivialities; we are eaten up by nothing.”
Looking back on that night, out by that lake, when I watched my friend Josh’s body getting fished out of the lake by paramedics. I remember staring into the black Texas night and watching my ego slowly dissolve into it. Josh’s death taught me much more than I initially realized. Yes, it helped me to seize the day, to take responsibility for my choices, and to pursue my dreams with less shame and inhibition.
But these were side effects of a deeper, more primary lesson. And the primary lesson was this: there is nothing to be afraid of. Ever. And reminding myself of my own death repeatedly over the years—whether it be through meditation, through reading philosophy, or through doing crazy shit like standing on a cliff in South Africa—is the only thing that has helped me hold this realization front and center in my mind. This acceptance of my death, this understanding of my own fragility, has made everything easier—untangling my addictions, identifying and confronting my own entitlement, accepting responsibility for my own problems—suffering through my fears and uncertainties, accepting my failures and embracing rejections—it has all been made lighter by the thought of my own death. The more I peer into the darkness, the brighter life gets, the quieter the world becomes, and the less unconscious resistance I feel to, well, anything.
I sit there on the Cape for a few minutes, taking in everything. When I finally decide to get up, I put my hands behind me and scoot back. Then, slowly, I stand. I check the ground around me—making sure there’s no errant rock ready to sabotage me. Having recognized that I am safe, I begin to walk back to reality—five feet, ten feet—my body restoring itself with each step. My feet become lighter. I let life’s magnet draw me in.
As I step back over some rocks, back to the main path, I look up to see a man staring at me. I stop and make eye contact with him.
“Um. I saw you sitting on the edge over there,” he says. His accent is Australian. The word “there” rolls out of his mouth awkwardly. He points toward Antarctica.
“Yeah. The view is gorgeous, isn’t it?” I am smiling. He is not. He has a serious look on his face.
I brush my hands off on my shorts, my body still buzzing from my surrender. There’s an awkward silence.
The Aussie stands for a moment, perplexed, still looking at me, clearly thinking of what to say next. After a moment, he carefully pieces the words together.
“Is everything okay? How are you feeling?”
I pause for a moment, still smiling. “Alive. Very alive.”
His skepticism breaks and reveals a smile in its place. He gives a slight nod and heads down the trail. I stand above, taking in the view, waiting for my friends to arrive on the peak.