Life before death
The urge to create is in your DNA
If you’re reading this, it’s because you come from a long line of creative people. The drive to create was passed down from your ancestors. You can’t escape it. It’s embedded in your DNA.
I know this from the science of biology.
We don’t have to study human sexuality too much to understand the power of procreation (from the Latin words for “to create” and “to bring forth.”) I remember my high school biology teacher arguing that this urge underlies everything we do in society, from the elaborate rituals of prom to the kind of car you drive. As a 16-year-old, that certainly made sense to me.
But this desire to create manifests itself in more than just a wish to pass along your genes.
I’m sure you feel some desire to leave your mark in some way, but it could take many different forms. Cave paintings, ancient Egyptian pyramids, Pink Floyd laser light shows and vlogging shows that the formats of creativity have evolved over the years and vary by generation and culture.
Today, your drive to create can show up in your career as an engineer who builds bridges, the office worker who keeps a private journal and performs at slam poetry events, or a student who plays the guitar as a way to relieve the stress of studying.
Creation is what made your life, what sustains your life, and a legacy you leave behind after you’re gone.
“At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.”
That’s from the description of DeathCafe.com, a franchise of cafes that put a twist on the traditional coffee shop. Instead of wasting time on your laptop, at a Death Cafe you contemplate your own mortality. To date, there are nearly 5,000 Death Cafes around the world.
You could even hold your own Death Cafe. Here’s all you need, according to the website:
• A host and facilitator.
• A venue with refreshments booked for a certain time and date.
• People who want to talk about death.
That’s it! The Death Cafe format is flexible, lightweight and straightforward. What makes it special is the discussion about death, there is no need for bells and whistles.
So why would you spend your time thinking about death when you could think about something more pleasant?
Because it focuses you. Time is finite, and remembering this motivates us to create. It’s kind of like seeing your laptop battery is at 7% and getting down to business instead of scrolling through Facebook again.
It’s a reminder to make your time count.
There’s a scientific term for this: Post-traumatic bliss. Thinking about your own death every day, paradoxically, will make you happier. This isn’t a new idea, of course. “Of all the mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme,” Buddha once said.
Dr. Anees Sheikh has taught psychology at Marquette University for 50 years, including a class called the Psychology of Death and Dying. On the first day of class, Dr. Sheikh tells a story by the late Anthony De Mello, an Indian Jesuit priest:
All questions at the public meeting that day were about life beyond the grave. The Master only laughed and did not give a single answer. To his disciples, who demanded to know the reason for his evasiveness, he later said, “Have you observed that it is precisely those who do not know what to do with this life, who want another that will last forever?” “But is there life after death or is there not?” persisted the disciple. “Is there life before death? — That is the question!” said the Master enigmatically.
We don’t have a choice in this matter. Death is the ending we all know is inevitable.
But when we forget that, we stop really living our lives.
A kid, a book, a tree
One of my favorite professors once told me a story about backpacking through Europe after college. He said his travels brought him in contact with an old man with a long white beard straight out of the Jungian archetypes of a wise old man. He looked exactly like Moses in The 10 Commandments, according to how my professor described him.
The wise old man told my professor that every person should do three things before they die: Have a kid, write a book and plant a tree. In other words, create.
You don’t have to interpret this advice literally to see the importance of creation for a meaningful life. My professor interpreted this to mean that he need to contribute to the next generation, grow the world’s body of knowledge and care for our earth in some tangible way.
Now is your time to create.
It’s in your DNA.
How will you use it?