Thinking about Death
Lance Armstrong is one of the most celebrated athletes in the world.
Seven-time winner of the Tour de France bicycle race, he is an icon on the
stage of the international sports. As much as he is regarded as a
competitor, he is respected for his courage — the athlete personifying true
Yet his career was not a walk in the park. At the age of twenty-one, he was
diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and given a twenty percent
chance of survival. His racing days were clearly over. Much to his doctors’
surprise, he survived. While recovering, he began thinking about racing
again. Seven years later, he went on to become the second American in
history to win the Tour de France, a race known as the world’s toughest
sporting event. He then went on to win that race seven years in a row,
setting a record that may never be broken.
While in the process of setting that record, and then only moderately
famous, Lance was interviewed by a reporter about his comeback from cancer.
In the course of the discussion, the reporter couldn’t help but notice how
lightly he seemed to take the disease. Not only wasn’t he bitter about the
experience, it seemed that he was flippant — maybe even happy about it. At
one point the reporter said, “The way that you speak about cancer, it almost
sounds like you are glad that it happened.”
He replied, “Why would I give up the single greatest thing that happened to
me? It made my career. It made my life. Knowing that it could all be over
was the most life-changing experience I ever went through. Why would I ever
want to give that up?”
A Very Different Perspective
Those are very powerful words and a perspective on death that few people have.
Thinking about death is depressing — if you don’t understand life. If life
is a party and death is the end, then death is a downer. If, however, the
reason we are here on this planet makes sense, then death isn’t depressing;
it is a galvanizing, energizing thought. It gets you out of bed in the
morning and keeps you moving at night. It gives you the energy to change and
to grow. The knowledge that this program is timed adds the sparkle and the
luster — almost, if you will, the fun — to life. Few things in the world are
as dreary as an empty existence, time with nothing to do. Few things make an
event as tedious as no goals and no end in sight.
Ironically, the more a person embraces the reality of death, the more he
enjoys life. Provided he understands life and how to live it, the thought of
the death awakens him and adds spark and vigor to his days. And with it
comes a deep sense of balance and harmony. However, a truly mature
perspective on life isn’t easy to achieve. It doesn’t come about by studying
some texts and then whamo — everything changes. It requires a change in our
emotional makeup, and that takes time, a lot of thinking, and constant
reinforcement. And even then, we may have it clearly in front of our eyes at
one moment, but then it slips away and we find ourselves again living half
There is a very real message to us in this as well. If we would ever be
gut-wrenchingly, brutally honest with ourselves and recognize that one day
we will leave this earth, that awareness alone would change the whole
balance of life. Our nishamos would scream out, “Do something! You only
have a short while here. Discover your purpose and pursue it for all you’re
worth, darn it!” The result would be a life that is more directed, more
passionate, and more meaningful. We would recognize the extraordinary value
of life and what we are here to accomplish. And we would be so much more
alive, living by design, not by chance. The first step is to be aware of the
importance of accepting death. When we do, death becomes something that we
embrace, and we find different venues and opportunities to experience it and
make it real.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier and Torah.org
This is an excerpt from the new Shmuz on Life book: Stop Surviving, Start Living. It is powerful, thought provoking, and life changing. The book is available for purchase at Judaica stores, Feldheim.com and TheShmuz.com.