When the discussion turns toward the history of death care in America, it’s not uncommon for someone to mention the fact that people in earlier centuries often feared being buried alive. The efforts to avoid such torture are fairly well documented. An interesting article on some of the various premature burial prevention inventions can be found here:
It’s not my intention today to retread this ground. Rather, I’ve been pondering a modern day corollary to the “buried alive” phobia. Given the state of medical knowledge in the 19th century, it’s not surprising that a person might fear he would be mistaken for dead when, in fact, his body had not yet given up the ghost. While medical advancements may have alleviated these fears, I think many of us now suffer from a similar, albeit more symbolic, phobia – the fear of being buried before having truly lived. Or to put it another way, dying with our potential intact. At least this is a personal concern for me.
In my twenties, I would often say I was going through a premature mid-life crisis. Ah, the naivety of youth. I had no idea what was truly awaiting me a couple decades down the road. The mid-life crisis is born from the realization that one has reached a point in life where it is likely more days lie behind than ahead. At 25, it was easy for me to imagine working as a lawyer for a few years until finding the perfect non-law career in which I would happily toil for 30 or 40 years before retiring. I had all the time in the world. Well, “a few years” has turned into 23 and I’m only marginally closer to finding that “perfect non-law career.”
In the decades between law school graduation and today, I have had a few false starts – adventures for which I seemed perfectly suited, but for which I ultimately lacked the necessary follow-through. As each hopeful future withered into an “at least I [sort of] tried” past, I would be aware that my potential was still with me – fully intact. Is this how it will always be? How do we know if we have lived up to our potential? I’m tempted to say my true potential is in being a life-long learner, always committed to engaging in the search, but I know that’s not true. In my heart, I know the true barometer of my potential is the degree to which I feel I’m holding myself back due to the fear of failure or perhaps the fear of success. The 25-year-old me would have said she was willing to put everything on the line in order to fully live her life. There were even times when she tried that, but fear always got the best of her. I’d like to say I’m ready to commit right now to refusing to let fear rule the day, but I’ve gotten to know myself a little better. I know this isn’t about all or nothing. It’s about deciding, as each challenge arises, whether I will live in fear or whether I will make a different choice. Perhaps, if I’m able to do that, when my final day comes I will go into that good night secure in the knowledge that my potential will not be accompanying me.
SIDE NOTE: The picture is of the Angel of Grief, designed by William Wetmore Story for his wife’s grave. I thought it was beautiful and couldn’t resist including it when I learned Mr. Story abandoned his career in the law to become a sculptor. More here: