How discussing death would give us a newfound appreciation for life.

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I was at a talk a few weeks ago with the subject pertaining to cancer research. To kick off the segment, the speaker asked the audience to ‘raise your hand if you’ve been affected by cancer’.

As you’d expect, every hand shot up.

The conversation centered around cancer research and the potential timing for a cure. Though, as we know, there are hundreds if not thousands of cancer types so it’s unlikely that one treatment method would work universally across the cancer spectrum.

We’ve likely all had someone close to us battle with cancer. In my case, my papa, great aunt, and great uncle have all passed due to cancer.

To think that cancer is the reason why these family members are no longer with me makes me angry. Screw you cancer! You disgusting disease! The world would be better off without you...Right?

What struck me during this hour-long talk was our inability to use the word death. So mentally, as the talk progressed, I started substituting the word ‘cancer’ for the word ‘death’. And something clicked.

Statements such as: “We’ve raised $10 million in the fight against cancer”; or, “We work with the international medical community to devise the best therapeutic techniques for identifying and preventing cancer”, instead switched to:

-- “We’ve raised $10 million in the fight against death”; or, “We work with the international medical community to devise the best therapeutic techniques for identifying and preventing death.”

To simplify this observation: we (homo sapiens) have always and will continue to invest and care about immortality techniques. Whether it’s the skin cream that reduces wrinkles so we look younger, or medical research to delay death, we are in an endless pursuit to crack the code of immortality.

Yet, through this search, we have not been able to address our true motive nor talk about what happens should we fail. Our true motive is to live forever and if we fail, we enter the unknown.

Since we seem to lack the ability (or mental strength) to discuss death, death scares us. And it scares us because it’s an unknown quantity that is (most likely) permanent – unless reincarnation proves true.

In life, we talk about myriad possibilities with unpredictable outcomes. Sporting events, political elections, and industry trends fascinate us due to the complexity and chance surrounding the outcome. Yet, it seems that most people rarely talk about death in this way.

You may think that religion’s popularity and acceptance means that my thesis is incorrect. There are billions of religious believers of a higher power who devote their lives to His (or Her) cause. But that does not mean these religious individuals truly discuss death — especially if they believe in the afterlife.

Discussing death involves admitting your own mortality. And admitting your own mortality is scary, terrifying, your worst nightmare. Because if you’re mortal, then by definition you won’t live forever. Maybe, one could argue, belief in the afterlife is our way of ignoring the ‘elephant in the room.’

During life, you can acknowledge and understand your own existence. But with death, do you even know that you used to exist? Does your mind get erased? Does the knowledge you built up during your life vanish into thin air? Will you ever be able to ‘feel’ again?

Sure, philosophers and brilliant thinkers have generated theories of the universe, and of death. But no one can know for sure who’s right. At an unknown day, time, and location in the Milk Way Galaxy (for now), all homo sapiens will face the prospect of death and lose.

Unfortunately, your parents can’t promise that everything will be okay. Death is something out of our comfort zone, and it is entirely unknown. This is why I find it frustrating when parents try to protect their children from death. Pretending like death is not a real phenomenon to comfort your kids is wrong.

Instead, parents should take the opposite approach and try to discuss and explain the idea of death. Death is the single and universal truth of life. Instead of being scared about this prospect, we should acknowledge and feel comfortable discussing it.

As Steve Jobs said,

“Death is the destination we all share, no one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be because death is very likely the single best invention of life.”

You may think it is a morbid and depressing idea to increase our discussion of death. But that’s nonsense. The most emotional and inspirational conversations I’ve had revolve around the meaning of life and our impending death. These honest and open conversations have brought me closer together to my friends, family, and strangers.

We are all humans that share the same fear and fate of death. By truly opening up to one another and admitting our fear of death, we could discover a newfound appreciation for life. And that’s worth the uncomfortable conversation.