My Birthday: A Reflection on Mortality and Flourishing

As I reflect about my life, influence, and future plans on my birthday, I also reflect on my own mortality. "That's great Ray, way to be a happy person" you might say. Ah, but the exercise is not rooted in feeling morose. Instead, it's rooted in feeling purposeful and alive. Such reflections serve to recalibrate efforts around what is: important and not just urgent, significant and not just productive, and sustainable not just impactful. I wrote about this kind of reflection elsewhere.[i] One of my graduate professors, Bobby Clinton, was fond of repeating, “Begin with the end in mind.” He started his leadership emergence classes by asking everyone to write their epitaph i.e., the inscription they wanted on their tombstone. This exercise sounds easier than it is for some people. Many of us thought and thought to say something succinct enough to fit on a tomb stone and of sufficient gravity to appropriately summarize the work of a life time. Bobby’s point was simply that leadership is a life-long process of learning.  If leaders intend to finish well they must begin with the end in mind.

Living with the end in mind is profoundly focusing.  I am intrigued by stories of near death experiences. People emerge from such experiences with a completely different hierarchy of priorities than they had before the experience. Life itself becomes more precious than accomplishment or power. People who have this experience rearrange their lives with a new perspective that keeps the end in mind. An interesting take on living with the end in mind came from a palliative care nurse who summarized the regrets of the dying she had heard over the years into a book.[ii] She documented five recurring regrets including:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Clearly, Jesus’ actions are the opposite of these regrets – he began with the end in mind.  Jesus was true to himself.  Jesus did not get caught up in maintaining spin. Jesus took time to rest.  Jesus expressed his feelings openly – we even have non-verbal indications of his feelings (Mark 7:24; 8:12).

What is interesting about Jesus’ times of rest and rejuvenation is that these times themselves provided or opened opportunities for the demonstration of God’s power that was catalytic to new insights and breakthroughs.  In contrast, leaders who never take a break, never “get a break.”  Their flurry of activity never moves beyond mediocrity. Perhaps this is because the “chance” meetings that would lead to new insights, new connections, or breakthroughs are usurped by attempts to maintain spin and the weariness that results. If you are working hard and wondering why those who have time to play get all the “breaks,” then perhaps it is time to take stock of how you manage your own energy.

Clinton’s point that leaders live with the end in mind is reflected in the renaissance works of western art. For example this work by Marinus van Reymerswaele (1490-1567) showing Jerome in his study.[iii]

Figure: Jerome in His Study

Figure 7.jpg

What do you see?  Notice the juxtaposition of the skull with the picture of the resurrection the illustrated text. See the crucifix and the skull suggesting Jesus’ own identification with our mortality. Jerome’s hands point to the dual reality that mortality is inevitable and so is the power of the resurrection. The entire picture points us toward the nature of God’s working that summons us to a hope that is alive and working and is yet not consummated. This is the eschatological nature of the kingdom of God i.e., that God’s reign and power is revealed in Christ and made available in the present but is not yet consummated. Death has not yet been destroyed. In Christian history the contemplation of death was not a moribund exercise. Contemplating death in light of the resurrection of Christ has served as a way of checking in with the tenuous nature of life that helped great men and women of faith focus on what was important in life.

The regrets of the dying illustrate the importance of beginning with the end in mind and exercising this kind of reflection on our own mortality. The behavioral and perceptual changes in those who have described near-death experiences serve as a tutorial for those who listen.  In recent years, researchers have spent time cataloging the following changes in those who experience near death events:[iv]

  • Life paradoxes begin to take on a sense of purpose and meaning
  • Forgiveness tends to replace former needs to criticize and condemn
  • Loving and accepting others without the usual attachments and conditions society expects
  • Loss of the fear of death
  • More spiritual and less religious
  • Easily engage in abstract thinking
  • More philosophical

In what ways might you be more effective as a leader if you adopted these behaviors and perceptions?

[i] Raymond L. Wheeler. Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's World. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015, 135-138.

[ii] Source: http://www.realfarmacy.com/the-top-5-regrets-of-the-dying/; Accessed 26 September 2013.

[iii] Source: http://blogs.artinfo.com/secrethistoryofart/2011/02/01/inside-the-masterpiece-marinus-van-reymerswaeles-saint-jerome-in-his-study/; accessed 16 April 2013.

[iv] P.M.H. Atwater. “After Effects of Near Death States.” Source: http://iands.org/aftereffects-of-near-death-states.html; accessed 16 April 2013.