I want to begin my article series for 2010 with the seemingly incongruous topic of 'death' for a number of very good reasons, the first of which would be having experienced the unexpected death of a favorite aunt only a few days ago on New Year's eve. We certainly had not planned on ringing in a new decade with the rituals of mourning. However, life's vagrancies pay no attention to our expectations. Not ever. Yet, as a culture, we seem to be obsessed with the denial of death. We've even changed our language so that we don't even have to use the word 'death.' Nobody dies anymore; they just 'pass away.' After all, isn't 'death' such a morbid subject? We wouldn't want to be accused of having a morbid fascination, would we? So, our culture attempts to expunge death from our lives by hiding it under platitudes and insulating us from it as much as possible by hiding (or hiding from) the evidence.

Obviously, the middle ages were infused with what we would consider a 'morbid fascination' with death. Yet, they had good reason. Back then, there was no hiding from the end of life. Infant mortality was rampant. Life was short (the average age at death was 40 or less). Disease swept Europe in waves that killed millions. Families encountered death 'up close and personal' on a disturbingly regular basis. Death, back then, was certainly an unavoidable 'fact of life.' Indeed, the experience of death and dying was so pervasive that it was completely taken for granted, like eating and sleeping. People needed to be reminded of what it meant: "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris" ("Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" from the Ash Wednesday service). Even Thomas Moore, Lord Chancellor of England under king Henry VIII adopted a famous motto: "Memento Mori" which is a Latin pun meaning both 'remember death' and 'remember Moore.' We would not want to return to the fixation on death that characterized the medieval period. Yet, what have we replaced it with?

Rather than focus on our ultimate destiny, leaving this world behind, our culture has chosen to replace a morbid fascination with death with a morbid fascination with rigidity and changelessness. Our obsession with youth and nostalgia for an imagined halcyon age in times gone by permeates not only our decision-making processes, but also the meaning we give to the world. 'Living in the moment' seems to have become 'living for the moment.' Haven't our lives been overtaken by an obsessive pursuit of security? How much thought, time, and resources have you devoted in the past year alone to achieving security for yourself and your family? Even the term 'conservative' has shifted from meaning a forward-looking, thoughtful decision-making process to meaning a kind of reflexive instinct for self-preservation. Yet no real security can ever be attained.

Sometimes the discipline of philosophy can bring sense to a worldview that appears confusing and contradictory. Medieval writers spoke of everything having a 'final cause.' That meant for them that things happen with an inner logic that drives them forward (whether or not we are aware of what that logic might be). If the universe had a beginning (and it did: the 'big bang'), then it has a direction and an inner logic that drives its evolution toward some future, as yet unknown, ending. The universe is not static. It's not rigid. It's not eternal and changeless. The only constant in the universe is change. Although its inner logic drives it forward, the universe's unfolding is anything but 'secure.' All we know for certain is that, at some point, the earth will be swallowed up by the sun, the sun will become a super-nova and die, our galaxy will collide with others and be ripped apart, and the forces of the entire universe will eventually play themselves out. Time and space as we know it will just cease.

The life that each of us enjoys can be understood as a microcosmic reflection of the universe itself. For us, as for the universe, there is no security, no stability, no guarantees. We grow and our lives play themselves out by an inner logic over which we have only limited influence. We call that inner logic our 'destiny' — that complex of possibilities that work together with our understanding and our decision-making powers to determine who and what we shall become. We absolutely must look backward to appreciate where we've come from. However, in life, there's no room for sentimental nostalgia. We can't — we shouldn't want to — turn back the clock. At midlife, youth has gone; good riddance! Enlightened by the past, our decision-making power must be focused rather on achieving our destiny whatever that may be. Our choices need to be forward-looking, enlightened by our ultimate end, our 'final cause,' our purpose for being here. Looking forward gives meaning and direction to our lives; obsessing on the past can only leave our lives frustrated, empty and meaningless.

Now how do we put this understanding into practice? One of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits is, "Begin with the end in mind." How will you know if you've made the right decisions if you have no idea where you're going? As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, "If you don't know where you're going, then any path will take you there." As you begin this new year, do you know where you're going? Do you have a clear mission for your life? Defined values? A vision for the next 12 months? A written intention statement that defines specifically what you want to accomplish? If you knew that death awaited you a year from now, how much differently would you live today? Death overtook our aunt while the rest of us were making plans for the New Year. Every time something like that happens, it's a wake-up call that reminds us with stark finality of our own end. Most of those who read this will end this year with a greater or lesser degree of success (however you choose to define that). Yet, some of you may not. Eventually, each of us will come to a year without a New Year's eve. Should we not begin this one with the end in mind? Indeed, "Memento Mori."

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
Copyright © 2009 H. Les Brown

Author's Bio: 

H. Les Brown has dedicated his life to supporting men and women through the process of transformational change.

From a very early age, he was drawn to the life of a spiritual leader. With a thirst for knowledge, a comprehensive understanding, a creative spirit and a love for trivia, he pursued masters degrees first in philosophy and then in theology before ordination to the ministry. Les served as a popular preacher, teacher and spiritual director. He challenged his people to grow beyond the limits of the ordinary and he encouraged them to strive for the extraordinary.

After ten years of ministry, Les’ own personal need for transformation caught up with him, and he left the active ministry in response to his own challenges to grow. Even before the advent of DOS personal computers worked in the field of information technology as a tech writer and, with the advent of the PC, as an installer and customer service representative for a church membership software company. He was using an e-mail account before most people had ever heard of the ‘internet’. He also learned computer programming and, before very long, had branched out in his own custom software company.

It was writing custom order processing software that brought Les to his next career transformation as head of IT for a mid-sized northeastern manufacturing company. Before long, his company’s computer system was the envy of some major corporations in its practical functionality. The transformations didn’t stop there, though. When the company grew to the point where it became essential to obtain internationally-recognized quality certification, Les volunteered first, to become a certified quality system inspector, and then to lead the company in its efforts to reorganize from a 1950’s era family business to a model 21st century organization. He was promoted to Vice President and Chief Information Officer of the corporation and led the company to successful simultaneous ISO-9000 and QS-9000 (automotive) quality certification.

After fifteen years with the manufacturing firm, Les began his next transformation, training for and being certified as a life coach with the Franklin Covey organization. What started as a part-time coaching practice suddenly became his full-time passion, as he was suddenly laid off in response to a major economic downturn.

During the course of his coaching career, Les has focused on people struggling to take their lives to a higher level. From an entrepreneurial family and an entrepreneur himself, Les had first-hand knowledge of the stress that business puts on business leaders . . . and on their families. The majority of his coaching clients over the years have been entrepreneurs trying to build their businesses while maintaining a home life. To support them, Les created his “Balanced Life Project” program and published his first book, The Frazzled Entrepreneur’s Guide to Having it All. His commitment to challenging his clients to create work-live balance through raising their awareness led him to his next transformation.

A single conversation with a professional man in his forties sparked the understanding that entrepreneurs were not only struggling with business and family issues; it was also almost universally true that both business men and women and professionals were in their forties or older and were also struggling with serious midlife issues as well. These midlife issues not only complicated people’s striving for success, they also threatened to disrupt of destroy their plans. For the last few years, Les has been developing and offering the “Midlife Mastery” program to individuals and groups with articles, teleseminars, an online community and a weekly internet radio program (“Midlife Matters”) that strives to bring clarity to the issues facing both men and women at midlife and how it can affect people’s careers, their families and intimate relationships, and their own personal health and well-being.

What is Les’ next transformation? That remains to be seen, but whatever it may be, you can be certain that it will be both interesting and exciting and will make a difference in people’s lives.