The nature of death is one of the most inescapable – and ultimately, unanswerable – questions in human history. The world’s greatest minds have dueled back and forth about how to answer this question throughout the centuries, but none have ever come to a concrete, definitive conclusion. But how we cope with death in our midst and the very idea of facing death is a different story. Jason Wrobel and Whitney Lauritsen reflect on death and loss, and how to use it as the ultimate motivator. Life is finite, but the possibilities contained therein are not. Which is why you should be seeking out ways to let its looming shadow not scare you, but empower you into action.
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Awoken by Death
I’ve been going through a lot of processing of deep emotions for a lot of different reasons. This has led me to reflect on a lot of things. I’ll get into why I’ve been reflecting on the past, but I was revisiting in my mind how in my journal sometimes I will brainstorm on random ideas for book titles or band names or concepts projects and things of that nature. One of my favorite titles that I never did anything with and that I feel compelled to write a song about now was originally something I wanted to in my rock days when I used to sing in rock bands and whatnot. This was a band name that I wanted to have as a project and never did it. The name was Awoken By Death, which sounds metal. If you were to hear a band or a song called Awoken By Death, you go, “That sounds heavy.” What I want to do is not obvious with it. I want to do something unexpected with a title like that. The point that I’m attempting to get to with this title and the reason that years ago, I thought of it and didn’t know what it meant to me at the time, is reflecting on it now. I was informed that my mentor in high school, his name was Russ Gibb, had passed away. I’ll get into a little bit more about what made this man so special and pivotal in my life.
I feel like when I have lost somebody important in my life, this idea of loss or of death or the perception of losing someone. For me, it has an awakening and a clarifying effect in life. It’s not just him and sitting in these feelings of the memories of him, how much he touched my life and affected me as a mentor. He changed the course of my life. He was a pivotal human being in my history. Also thinking about the people that I’ve lost and that have touched my life in some profound way. Through the sorrow and the feeling of loss, there’s this interesting clarity that arises. The clarity is almost like this awakening for me of, “Am I living in alignment with my truth? Am I living in alignment with something that I feel meaningful about?” It’s because he lived his life with so much meaning, passion, wisdom, he was a game-changer, and all the things he did in his career. It’s causing me to reflect on what I’m doing and how I’m living my life.
Death is this interesting thing to reflect on where there’s the sadness of not being able to see this person or connect with this person in physical form. I feel much like when my grandfather passed away back in the mid-’90s. That was the thing that set me on the path of veganism and health and wellness. It’s changed my life with food and nutrition and taking my health more seriously. I didn’t know that my grandpa dying and how traumatizing and painful that was would awaken me to look at my life in a different way, how I was living, how he was living, how my whole family was living. Losing people can be this interesting wake-up call for me. I’ve experienced that and I’m in that now again. I’m reflecting on the gift of loss and the gift of death.
You have to quote the Star Wars trailer that came out where at the very end, Luke Skywalker’s voice comes in and he goes, “No one’s ever really gone.” That movie is interesting and this idea of no one’s ever gone and the clarifying aspect of losing people. In Star Wars, there’s this whole idea of Force ghosts. After someone loses a Jedi or loses their physical body, they have the ability in the nonphysical form to come back, teach lessons, talk to people and engage with people who are still in their bodies. It’s this idea of wisdom, love or perspective being shared after death. We talk about the legacy of people’s impact after their physical life is over. I feel like I’m a little bit all over the place, so I’m collecting my thoughts because I found out that Russ had passed away. I’m still swimming in these emotions.
One of the things that scare me the most, it’s probably one of my two biggest fears, is that at the end of my life, I won’t have made the impact that I wanted to. Somehow there will be some semblance of regret on my deathbed or that I won’t have lived as full out or full-on as I wanted to. That’s not a bucket list thing like, “You never bungee jumped or you never took a lap around a NASCAR track.” It’s nothing like that. The fear for me when I think about my death is this idea that I didn’t have the impact or didn’t affect the world how I wanted to. I didn’t give my all to things or that I didn’t conquer my fears. I didn’t give over to those things. Thinking about my grandpa, Russ, and the most important people that I’ve lost in my life, makes me think about my own death too. Not in a morose downer way, but am I really living? Am I being half-ass about it? Am I being scared? That’s the clarifying effect I’m talking about of being Awoken By Death. It’s that reflection.
There’s a quote that starts off with something like, “The funny thing about human beings is they think they have more time.”
This is an offshoot of the original quote where the Buddha quote that, “What you motivated my mind to think of is the problem is you think you have time,” which is I think attributed to the Buddha. The problem is you think you have more time.The idea of loss or of death has an awakening and clarifying effect. Click To Tweet
First of all, there was a lot of attributions like Jack Kornfield and Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, but then some people are saying FakeBuddhaQuotes.com. Either way, it doesn’t matter who said it. The trouble is we think we have more time. That’s the thing that death reminds us of when somebody that we care about passes away. It’s a reminder that we too will die but for better or for worse, we don’t think about dying that frequently.
We don’t in your day-to-day life. I’m saying to you, Whitney, don’t you find that it’s not an ever-present thing? It’s almost like we compartmentalize the reality of our situation, which is time is finite and our time in these physical bodies is finite. I find that it’s not an ever-present notion. I have found that I’ve been thinking about death more. Not in a macabre morose way of death, but this idea of death as a motivator and a clarifier that this particular body and life as Jason’s will be over. What is it that I want to be doing, living and experiencing?
What’s interesting to me though is as far as we know, our consciousness ends at death.
That’s the thing as we don’t know.
That’s why I said as far as we know. We have assumed through science, research and whatever else that our consciousness as we know it ends at that time. The interesting thing is if that’s the case, then we won’t have the consciousness to have regrets. It maybe depends on how our lives end because if our lives end suddenly, we don’t even have a chance to regret anything. If our lives end slowly, “Naturally,” if we get old like one of my grandfathers, for example, both of them had that period of time. First of all, they were getting older, but then one of my grandfathers got sick so he’s probably thinking about death a lot. The grandfather that I was close to was in hospice. When you go into hospice, it’s like saying, “This is going to be the end.” I imagine that’s got to be pretty weird to be waiting for death to come. That’s interesting because we’ve talked about before how Jason and I both feel passionate about longevity. We want to live long lives. Can you imagine getting to that mentally what that would be like to anticipate death? I would see that might be a time where regrets might come up for you.
There would be all this time to sit and review one’s life if it’s not something sudden like getting eaten by a shark.
It’s interesting because I think there was a book written about this where a nurse interviewed people on their death beds about the biggest regrets of their lives. We hear things like that and we feel, “I don’t want to have those regrets,” which is inspiring. We won’t know if we’re going to regret anything. That’s the other interesting thing for me is that as we know hindsight is 2020 so when we’re making decisions, we’re usually doing the best we can or the best we know how in those moments. If we’re giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt, every decision we make is based on us doing the best that we can at that moment.
Every once in a while, there will be a decision and we’ll think, “I made that decision out of fear. I made that decision out of weakness.” Even in those moments where we do make decisions out of those emotions, that still feels like the best choice for us at that moment. It’s silly for us to have regrets about things because there was a reason that we made them. Every decision that we’re making is made for some reason. This idea of regret is almost a wasted emotion unless it’s commonly used for motivation to change.
Suffering and pain are generally good motivators for change.
It’s like, “I regret that I did this.” There’s a difference between beating yourself up versus saying, “I wished that I had done something differently, but I forgive myself for doing it that way and I want to make a different choice in the future.” The only difference with death is that we might not have that opportunity, but we have no idea how any of our lives are going to end and if we will even have an opportunity to regret something. You don’t know. I look at one of my grandmothers, for example. One of them was in that mode of suffering from most of the time that I knew her. She had Parkinson’s and she mentally was not happy or maybe all there. It was like 10 to 20 years that I knew her. It seemed like she was always miserable in some way or another. I imagine that for her, there was a lot of mental suffering but I never asked her. Whereas my other grandmother had a stroke or maybe it was a heart attack. It happened out of nowhere. She lost most of her consciousness. She was in a hospital bed for a month and then passed away. I don’t even know how alert she even was. Was she even in a state where she could sit there and reflect on her life? I don’t know.
That’s the part of it. We can use that as a motivation, but at every moment we still have a choice. I think that’s also part of it is this idea that is thinking that we have time. We only have the present moment because we have no idea what the future holds for us and what our state of mind will be. We’re constantly changing so we can sit here and feel motivated, but we still have to be present and the only thing that matters is what we’re doing right now. The past doesn’t matter and the future doesn’t matter. There’s no point beating in ourselves up. There’s no point in saying, “I wish I had done things differently” because for whatever reason, at that time, you made a different decision.
For me, the thing I’m present to at this moment is the clarity that it brings in the sense of are there any non-essential crappy little things that I’m consuming my time and attention to that don’t matter to me?
Don’t you feel like that’s a bit of judgment though? You made a choice to do those things or have those things in your life.
That’s right but I also wonder that I have had a tendency in the past to be a little bit of a people pleaser. Undoing that energy in the sense of when I observed somebody dying and there’s this reminder of we’re in this finite time-bound reality and to your point, all we have is the present. The past is dead. The future is unwritten. At this moment, am I living the way I want to live or am I living for other people’s expectations? Are there expectations I have for myself that are no longer valid? It’s apropos of where I’m at. I feel a little bit like I’m in free fall. I feel a little bit lost. I feel a little bit uncertain about what I am doing and if it’s in alignment with my soul and my heart. Am I going through the motions and doing certain things that are outdated career-wise, creativity-wise and business-wise?We think we have more time, but facing death reminds us of the truth. Click To Tweet
It’s interesting that in the midst of this feeling of free fall or finding myself again, I’m feeling a little bit like I’m in the wilderness. I’m lost and wandering to the degree that this wonderful mentor from high school who changed the course of my life in a profound way. I feel like I’m in a life-changing chapter as well, which is maybe why this is hitting so hard. I remember when I first met him, I was lost and directionless. I’m a bit of a punk, getting in fights and didn’t give a crap about school. I was a lost soul in that part of my life. He gave me this opportunity to channel my disillusionment, my rage, my anxiety, my creativity and put it into an outlet of film and video and acting, and doing things I never considered doing. Russ saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself and nobody else did either. He gave me this path and reservoir to put all these emotions and this creativity that was not being put anywhere. I was a mess when I was fourteen years old.
You’re labeling yourself as being a mess when that was the best you knew how to be. Do you feel like there was something wrong with that?
No, I wasn’t.
What do you think is not being a mess?
I’m saying it because this was the reality of my consciousness at the time. I didn’t give a crap about school at all. I was getting D’s and F’s.
What did you care about instead?
I’m reading comic books and playing video games.
Are those things a mess?
What I want to do is express my state of being. I’m not judging my former self. I’m trying to give a glimpse of where I was at the time. For me, I was angry, disillusioned and fed up with being alive. I remember at fourteen years old, I didn’t feel understood. I didn’t feel like I had good friends. I felt this experience of disengagement and disillusionment with life. I remembered that feeling. The reason that I feel like it was profound to have an outlet for my teenage angst, my confusion and disillusionment where it was the first time that I saw something to channel in a creative way that had meaning to me. Up until that point, I didn’t have an outlet. I didn’t have anything that I felt was healthy and focused or something that brought me joy and creativity.
It was interesting to have that moment of like, “There’s something I never even considered existed, which was film, video, being on camera and expressing myself through character and script. It was mind-blowing. I’m sitting back and I don’t feel judgmental of that period of my life. I’m reflecting on the power of that. For me as a young man to have that guidance, that mentorship, that outlet in the form of creativity was a life-changing change of direction for me. I use the word life-changing not in a small, subtle way. My point is I’m now rethinking what I’m doing and where I’m focusing my attention and my energy. Maybe him passing away is getting me to reflect back on when I was fourteen years old and that feeling back then. I’m still trying to decode it. It’s still fresh, weird and raw.
What I’m trying to say is if we are present then there is no judgment because we’re constantly rethinking things. We tend to want to put labels or we put our lives into these different stages. It’s like, “This is the time I was a mess and this is the time I wasn’t. Now I’m back in a place where I feel like I’m a mess and rethinking things.” Is it possible that it’s all blurred together? It’s not that I don’t believe in defining moments or transitions or whatever, but in a way that limits us when we chunk our lives into stages. That’s where some of the judgment comes in. It’s like, “This is the time when I was young and this is the time when I was old. This is the time of my teens. This is the time of my twenties and there’s a difference between the two.” We have no prediction over where our lives are going. Every single moment is an opportunity to change, transition and rethink things. The stages in a way can be judgmental because we can see them as less than or better than.
I think comparison, as we’ve talked a lot about, can cause a lot of suffering. Knowing what you expressed to me, Jason, is you feel like you’re in this free fall, but how do you even know that you’re falling? Even saying the word falling as we talked about before like falling in love, is seen as this negative thing. It’s like you’re falling and you’re out of control or whatever. It’s like going downwards, but for all you know that you might be going upwards in this moment in your life. It’s a feeling. As I’ve discovered a lot in the periods of my life that I felt emotionally uncomfortable, my feelings are constantly changing. As we know from meditation practice, our thoughts are a bit meaningless. They’re just thoughts, but we assign meaning to them. Sometimes we become attached to them and that attachment can lead to suffering. This is all aside from the mourning and the grief period of death.
The death of a loved one is almost worse in my head than my own death because I don’t know when it’s going to happen. I don’t know what my state of being will be after that moment of death. Maybe it is peaceful because I won’t be thinking anymore, having any consciousness or awareness, maybe it ends, which also sounds pretty freaky in a way, but simply because I’m used to it. If our consciousness ends, we’re not even going to have a thought or a feeling of fear, it’s over. That’s beyond comprehension because we have no frame of reference for that. That’s why death feels so scary is that it’s very permanent. To me, there’s so much more pain in the death of a loved one or anyone that we care for mainly because we are going to miss them. It’s a very selfish thing in a way. I was thinking about this with my grandfather. The last time I saw him and the last few times that I saw him, I wondered, “Was I there for him or was he there for me?”
What if it’s both?It's silly for us to have regrets about our choices because there are reasons we make them. Click To Tweet
These are the thoughts that I was having. I’m like, “I probably was both,” but I felt like I was there for him. That was this mentality of like, “You should go see your grandfather.” He was also there for me because when he died, he was going through some major transformation or a true end. We don’t know what happens when our bodies die. For my grandfather in a way, it’s going to happen one day and he doesn’t experience any pain after that. For me, losing my grandfather was a pain and then the rest of my life has some pain from that time that my grandfather died because he’s not there in my life.
There’s a perceived void.
It’s interesting how I started to think about it differently and how as human beings, we’re there. There’s that time when somebody is in our lives and when they’re not anymore and how we feel sad. It’s almost like a selfish sadness because we don’t have them in the role that they played. Maybe for you, you’re feeling this void of somebody that you felt was looking after you. I wonder is it that you felt like a part of you died or you felt like now there’s one less person to lean on or the person that helped me through a hard time is no longer there and I wish they were there to help me. When was the last time that you talked to him?
It was a while ago.
I didn’t even know about this person in your life. His name is unfamiliar to me. What’s interesting to me too is bringing up a lot of emotions, but you hadn’t connected with this person in a while. I don’t mean for this to sound diminishing, but my question would be, why does it hurt so much when this is somebody that you weren’t connected to? Not to be diminishing but I’m curious, what is the pain? Is it bringing up old memories or is it that it’s bringing up all these questions for you because he’s significant even though you weren’t connected?
It’s all very fresh and I’m still feeling and sorting through it all. My initial answer to your question is its reflecting on the old memories and the timing of this perception or feeling or judgment, maybe all three, of where I’m at and remember where I was when I was fourteen years old and how similar the feelings are. The other part of it is that this was a being who was so dedicated to helping, supporting and inspiring creativity, ferocious individuality and exploration in other people. The loss of a being like that on the planet on a macro sense is also painful. This guiding light, this person who was so ferociously creative, who live full out, who dedicated so much of his life to uplifting others, inspiring them and seeing potential in people. When a soul like that is embodied on this planet, if you meet someone like that and they’ve touched you, it does feel selfish in the sense of like, “I’m not going to ever see this person, although we weren’t in communication, it’s more of a bigger loss of the loss of a great being. That’s what I’m present to at this moment. It’s the sadness in this moment of the macro loss of this being’s presence on the planet.
This is one of the amazing stories. I remember and this was in the mid-’90s is we had one of the top four film and video programs in the entire country. The studio was amazing. You’ll know this, Whitney, but for any film editor or video geeks that are reading, we were one of the first schools that had an AVID nonlinear editor. To that point, we were editing on tape. Everything was a tape. It was high eight. It was 3/4 inch. We got this AVID machine and I remember it was the first time I ever surfed the internet. We had the internet in ‘94. I was like, “What is this?” He predicted YouTube because I remember having conversations with him. He sounded like the Penguin from the Batman movies. He was like, “I’m telling you, in 8 to 10 years, everyone’s going to have a camera. Everyone’s going to be making videos. It’s going to be a part of the cultural context. Everyone’s going to have their fifteen minutes of fame as Warhol said. Trust me, it’s going that way in ten years. You are going to have this experience.” Lo and behold, in 2005 YouTube comes out.
He had this confidence and he was this visionary with music, video and film. He saw where it was going ten years ahead of time. I remember when YouTube came out, thinking back it’s like, “Russ called us.” Everyone’s got a camera now. Everyone’s got a camera on their phone. Everybody and their grandma’s doing video and have a YouTube channel or posts on Instagram stories. His prescience and his ability to see into the future was one of the things that were so profound. To go back to why I think it’s sorrowful is he was also this visionary human being. I’m still sorting through all the emotions around it, but that’s my initial answer of why I think I feel the sadness I do.
There’s beauty and when I talk about awakening by death, there are also gifts, much like my grandfather not knowing at the moment that his passing would get me to reflect on my lifestyle, my food and all those things. I think Russ, the gift in it if I go to his memorial, which I endeavor to do, then I get to see my mom and I get to reconnect with old friends that I haven’t seen in decades. People that I was close to in the film and video program. We spent months on certain films and working closely together. If there’s a gift in it, perhaps it’s paying homage or honor to him, it’s getting to reconnect with these old friends, these dear souls that I haven’t seen in a long time. In this period of grief and perceived loss, there are gifts to be seen in it too. There’s a beauty to be harvested from it as well. I’m trying to be present to that too. That’s all I have to say. You had your crying moment on a previous episode and now this is my first time, which probably won’t be the last because I’m feeling a lot.
The takeaway for me in this subject of death and impermanence is not getting stuck in the sorrow or the illusion. I know through certain spiritual experiences that, to quote back Luke Skywalker, “No one’s ever really gone.” I feel like I’ve had some wonderful experiences with my grandparents and certain other people that I’m not quite sure what to call it, but the feeling of their presence. In this feeling of loss or sorrow that we may find ourselves in, there’s hope in it too. There are gifts in it if we choose to look for them. That’s the thing that I’m encouraging all of us to be present to is not everything is all bad. You talk about judgment, Whitney. Not everything is all sorrow and pain. In the midst of our pain, sorrow, disillusionment and disappointment, there are gifts, beauty, redemption and grace to be found in those moments as well. I think being gentle with ourselves, being present and allowing ourselves to be in it allows the grace, the gifts and the beauty to arise. That’s my biggest perspective on it all. Thanks for going deep with me on this one and for being with us on this journey and getting super uncomfortable. We’ll see you soon.