What if it was guaranteed that you were going to die six months from now. You know the exact date of your death. It won’t matter whether you go to bed that night because you won’t wake up… ever.
What would you do? How would you spend the next six months?
You get over your initial shock and anger, your “why me?” sob story, your sadness and denial, leading you finally to acceptance.
Well… you’ll go and say all the things you’ve been meaning to say to Mom and Dad, to your husband or wife, brother, sister… You’ll cry with them for the first time in how long? You’ll laugh like never before and hug like you ain’t seen ‘em in a thousand years. You’ll notice wrinkles, various colors that make up the swirling irises of their eyes, hear the many notes and nuances of their voices.
You’ll step out the front door and suddenly hear all the sounds you’ve learned to ignore. The wind through the trees, the symphony of rustling leaves, birdsong and the buzz of insects.
Unexpectedly, you’ll see the multitudinous colors of the world around you. For the first time since you were a cute little rugrat, you’ll notice the marvelous patterns that only nature can reveal in flowers, in the bark of trees, in the grass growing on your lawn. Your nose will twitch as you smell the dirt and the earth that was there all along, long forgotten by you. You’ll feel with your entire body and being, the movement of the universe. Your senses will be aflame, alive, and alert like never before.
In everyone you see, from the person driving by to the fella begging for some change, you’ll see that spark, that unique light of humanity within each human being. You’ll remember how in Sunday school you were taught to love everyone. You don’t have to like them, but now you will see the spark of God — and love — shining through the most evil man.
Maybe you’ll decide to go to church, mass, synagogue, mosque… or just go to the cathedral of nature, where you’ll finally worship God in the deepest of ways.
You’ll get your bucket list checked off while singing aloud even though you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. You’ll smile at that driver who just cut you off, instead of getting angry, cussing and beating on the steering wheel.
As that fateful day draws closer, you’ll finish the projects you started but never found the time to complete. You’ll write down all your worldly wisdom, not caring if it makes sense or not. You’ll find true peace, maybe for the first time, as you shine with inner light that so few ever reveal. You’ll forgive and love and … ?
Now, you’ve got five months left, four months, three, two, one. Now, you’ve only got three weeks, two weeks, one. Seven days.
One final second.
One last breath.
How will you spend that one next second– your very next breath?
Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
I’m a 44-year-old man. At 18, I was arrested for murder. At 20, after pleading guilty, I was sentenced to death. I am on Death Row. So, right now, at this very moment, the cold, hard reality is that they are going to strap me to a funky gurney, stab needles into my arms, and pump liquid fire through my veins until I am graveyard dead. All while people, in some morbid, circus-like atmosphere sit and watch.
They are gonna kill me.
I’ll get to know the year, month, day, hour and damn near minute of my extinction beforehand.
Truth be told, they may never get this opportunity due to appeals and the possibility of changes to the law. There is even a chance that I could get out of prison. Nobody, not one of us, knows what the future has in store.
But, at this moment, I AM going to be executed. I’m actually and truly ok with that. I’ve done what I could to make my peace.
I’m gonna die. Then again, ain’t we all gonna die?
Reality check: We are ALL sentenced to death.
The beauty I’ve discovered is that a death sentence, if one allows it, can force a body to come face-to-face with one’s own mortality making the contemplation of death, the acceptance of death, a whole lot easier.
Back in feudal Japan, the samurai were taught and trained from a young age to meditate on death. They learned to live their lives as if they were already dead. Back then, warfare was brutal, bloody, up-close and in your face personal. It took great courage to face enemies with only a sword.
These people learned to make each step, breath, action, their first and their last. They found beauty in simplistic and mundane items.
The tea ceremony emerged from this time — a sublime ceremony in which everything had meaning, every movement and gesture done with single-minded devotion and purpose. Haiku poetry came from here — short, deeply meaningful, profound verses one would compose at the moment of death, even at the moment of ritual suicide.
We always forget that tomorrow may never come, and our next inhalation is in no way promised. Yet, if we can learn to embrace inevitable death, accepting that it could come at any moment, learning to live every second as if we are already dead, then we would find life all over again.
A death sentence grants a unique perspective on the life of death and the death of life. That can make a person reckless. I was once that way addicted to adrenaline. I thought, “Since I’m gonna die anyways then what’s the big deal?”
However, I’ve found that relinquishing life, living as dead, makes life, even here on Death Row, surrounded by the chaotic darkness that permeates the walls and grounds, an amazingly beautiful thing.
Remember what kids are like when turned loose in a new place? Their chubby faces light up, eyes big as silver dollars. They explore, touching, tasting, smelling everything, asking endless questions — sometimes surprisingly profound and philosophical. We can find that again. We can be like kids again, but with wisdom gained from our own journeys and with life’s purpose forever before us now.
It’s amazing what a little death can do.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.