"Death is the only thing in your life that will always tell you the truth. If you have any lingering, unresolved questions about life, consult your death."
Lately, the interest in death, understanding it and preparing for it, has made inroads into our popular culture. Our focus here is not so much about how to die, but rather how to live more fully, using death as our advisor.
What advice does death have for us? Live now! Life is short! Live life to the fullest! You don’t know when I’m going to show up so act as if this day is your last! Have the conversations that need to happen before they can’t! If not now, when?
A large part of these conversations is letting ourselves be as fully known, as much as possible, both to ourselves and others. Before we die. Why? Letting yourself be known and loved makes meaning and richness out of life.
And to be truly loved we need to be truly known. We cannot be loved for the totality of who we are if we’re showing only certain parts of ourselves. Without “exposing” ourselves, these parts remain secret when we die. Shining a light on hidden places leads to personal growth, depth of relating and relationships (letting others know what’s really going on inside of us and vice versa) and therefore potential for (true) love and connection, as well as accepting and loving ourselves. Before we die.
Early psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott wrote, “It’s a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.” This points to our deep desire to be seen, known and loved for our authentic selves AND our abject terror of letting our whole selves be known. Our guess is that, because of this conflict, many of us die without letting ourselves be really known.
What’s so scary about being fully known? About being authentic, transparent or vulnerable? Sometimes we’re afraid of being judged, condemned, shamed or humiliated. We often want to be seen for the parts we want to be seen and we don’t want others to see the parts we don’t want seen — but in that case we cannot be fully known and therefore cannot be fully loved.
The Shadow is “the long black bag we drag behind us.” In the black bag we put parts of ourselves we’ve rejected in order to be accepted, loved, safe or not punished as we were growing up, which often leads to shame about who we truly are. These aspects are not only “negative” ones (incompetence, anger, feelings of weakness); they can also be “positive” (creativity, sexuality, intelligence). Much of this happens unconsciously. Then there are our "secrets," also in the “shadow,” but put there consciously.
Robert Karen wrties: “Every time we go to someone we trust with an obsessive feeling of shame, guilt, or regret and get it worked out, or at least worked on, so that it loses some of its tyrannical grip, we are engaged in a healing intimacy. It takes courage to do this. It runs counter to our defensive impulses. It represents the ultimate collapse of the need to justify, to blame, to get even. For we are letting another part of us speak, the part that is in doubt, the part that believes we may be wrong, so wrong that our very worth is thrown into question. But unless that part can be allowed to speak, there can be no healing.”
This is one avenue to letting ourselves be known and reducing shame, guilt and regret.
Author Terry Tempest Williams’ mother asked her to read her diaries after she died. When she did so, she found volumes of beautifully bound journals — and all the pages were blank. When we die without letting ourselves be known, that is what we leave behind.
Marla Estes and Laurel Miller offering the workshop “Letting Yourself Be Known Before You Die” from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22. They also offer a monthly film series “Exploring Dying as a Way to Live More Fully.” For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 541-482-4948 or go to www.marlaestes.com.