In the shadow of leaves

“We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling. — Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure, “The Book of the Samurai”

Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose
Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose

There was a tradition among the Samurai of envisioning their own deaths in battle so as to make them fearless of dying when their time came. Ideally, they sought to die by the hand of another Samurai, or a respected adversary. Dying with honor was as important to them as living with honor. The samurai are no longer, but their code has left a deep imprint on the Japanese psyche and has powerful implications for helping the rest of us understand how to live without fear of dying.

The first line of Hagakure tells us what we already know: we all want to live. With elegant simplicity, it underscores the essence of why we act the way we do. Instinctively, we act out of fear. We cling to life. Survival is the very basis of our programming and much of what we make out of life is in response to fear of losing; losing control, losing out, losing face, losing life. So what we manifest is our way of coping with these perceived threats on one level or another. But it’s not just survival that drives us, it’s everything in life we do to avoid facing the inevitable.

I recently made a silent offer that helped me to understand the thinking of the Samurai. As I was being wheeled into surgery one morning 5 months ago, I offered that in the scenario where only my daughter or I would survive, I asked that it would be my daughter. It gave me peace of mind and eased all concerns I had about the operation. I believed that I would be giving up what had been a very fulfilling life up to that point, so that my daughter and wife would continue to enjoy their lives together. I didn’t necessarily believe in such an inevitable trade-off, but was ready to cash in my cosmic insurance policy.

I knew how grateful Nam would be to keep Natalie, and I felt this was most important thing I could make possible. It satisfied me to know that I had nothing to fear because what I was willing to give away would allow something greater to continue. This was a liberating feeling. I didn’t think of my offer as cavalier or heroic, because in that moment, dying didn’t seem like anything to be afraid of; it was just the best way for me to serve those I loved. Such an honor resonated with me and made perfect sense.

In the wake of these events, I feel that as I’ve already been willing to give away my life for someone else, that to die now is no longer something to be feared. Though my offer was denied, I see that a way of living is also a way of dying. When we live as if we’re already dead, the things we fear most become irrelevant and we can focus on living with purpose rather than just avoiding the inevitable.

I’m fully committed to dying in style, a little every day.