Living in the Face of Death

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Yesterday at one of our favorite restaurants here in Mexico our waiter pointed over to an empty table on the patio and asked, “Did you know Steve who sat there every day?”

We vaguely remembered the man who sat alone sipping a glass of wine and working on his laptop. He talked to our dog a couple of times but we largely ignored him. What the waiter said next rocked us.

“He died a few days ago of heart attack and it took four days before anyone discovered him. His body is still in the morgue because nobody can find family members to bury him. He has two sons in Houston but they are not returning the calls of the authorities.” The waiter then added with tears in his eyes “He was my friend!”

He died alone.

We felt a pang of guilt that we had hardly been aware of this lonely man at the other table. This lack of acknowledgement of another stood in stark contrast to the strong sense of community and family here in Mexico. Even the waiter described him as a friend.

In Mexico people don’t just live or die alone. Normally they are part of a loving community. Even strangers on the street routinely greet each other. Early one morning I was on an elevator in Mexico City recently and everyone greeted each other warmly. A few days later I was on another elevator in a large U.S. city and people just stared at the lights for the floor numbers not uttering a word or making eye contact.

We hardly ever acknowledge the presence of strangers.

So Steve’s death prompted me to ask, “What does life mean in the face of death?” There has been a lot of disaster in the news lately.  In the Philippines thousands of lives were lost.

So you may be asking,

“What does all this discussion of death have to do with the inspirational leadership theme of your blog?

Precisely for the following reasons.

1. Sometimes we fight the idea of death, ours included, and keep it at an arms length.

In so doing don’t we limit fully living our lives?

2. We forget that inspired living includes factoring in death as a normal part of living.

What impact could that have on living with gratitude each day?

3. Learning to die isn’t easy. Our will to live is so strong that we at times view reflection on death as morbid and unnecessary.

How does opening our life to the whole spectrum of experience, including death, increase our sense of gratitude and sensitivity to others?

Steve’s death and events in the Philippines are not just morbid facts to avoid.

They are a wake up call to live fully and with compassion at the inspirational edge that recognizes that

 1. We are deeply connected, for better or worse, to everyone else.

2.  We are called to do good wherever we have opportunity.

3.  We can keep our hearts soft in response to suffering and need.

Hence we should never say to ourselves, “This is not personal. This is business”.

4. We learn that the nowness of each moment is a precious experience.

So what Steve moment have you had recently?

Don’t suppress the reflections that those moments prompt.

Ask yourself “How can I show kindness today to someone in my immediate circle or to the Steve sitting alone at the other table?

About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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2 Responses to Living in the Face of Death

  1. Jodie Johnson says:

    Thank you Cedric for this important reminder. I have a wonderful story to share along these lines.
    One day after school in San Francisco my 6 year old grandson and I were about to go in a restaurant. Standing with his shopping cart across the front door was a man who was probably in his last sixties, though he appeared much older. He was wearing slippers and was severely hunched over so his face was hidden. My grandson asked why we couldn’t go in the restaurant I replied that we needed to wait for the old man to move. The man too one step forward and then slowly let the other foot catch up and then stood not moving. What seemed like another minute went by and he ventured forward with another step in the same fashion. We watched and waited until he passed the entrance and finally went into the restaurant. My grandson was clearly concerned about what had transpired. He asked why the man was moving so slowly. I said it might be because the sun was out and every time he stopped he could feel the warm sun on his body and that felt good to him. When we sat down to order, my grandson was given crayons and a child’s menu. He turned the menu over and drew a picture of the sun. He then said he wanted to give it to the man so he could look at the sun and feel good. We went outside and he presented the picture. The man beamed. We spoke to him for about 5 minutes. We learned his name was Eugene and that he had grown up in San Francisco and gone to high school there. He thanked my grandson and carefully placed his picture in his cart. My grandson looks for Eugene whenever we are on 24th St. We have not seen him again, but hope he is still looking at the picture of the sun and feeling warm inside from it.

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