Do What You Love and Die Trying
on preparing for the inevitable
Last summer, I walked across a high ridgeline in the mountains of California.
Here above the treeline, off-trail travel is surprisingly easy. With a light pack, strong ankles, and a decent sense of balance, you can traverse rock and sand like a god at the world’s ceiling.
I smiled and laughed as I hopped between granite boulders, writing poetry with my feet: leap, balance, assess, leap, balance. The sky was clear, with long views in all directions. Sunshine and a cool breeze mingled on my skin. The night before, back in Lake Tahoe, a group of friends had come over—people who mostly didn’t know each other—and we’d all bonded over food, drinks, and games. I felt strong, healthy, alive, connected.
It was a perfect day to die.
At a spot where the ridge dropped off precipitously, two hundred feet straight down, I removed my pack and laid belly-down on a flat sheet of granite that jutted over the edge.
Scooting up to the cliff, I peered down at the smooth granite shelves, jumbled boulder fields, and alpine lakes below. My head swam with a touch of vertigo.
“It would be so easy,” I told myself.
It would be so easy to end life here, surrounded by austere beauty, rather than an ugly hospital room in an ugly city.
It would be so easy to end it quickly, without burdening family members or the healthcare system.
It would be so easy to leave this world at the apex of life, instead of the nadir—free of disease, disability, dependency.
It would be so easy to jump from this ridge.
I wasn’t even considering it.
Thinking about death is really no different from thinking about life.
Here at the world’s ceiling, with my head hanging over the precipice, I conjured images of those with truly debilitating conditions—terminal cancer, incurable disease, severe paralysis—and what I might do in their shoes.
I thought how a different society might offer such people a more beautiful way to depart this earth: something that felt like jumping from a mountain ridge on a sunny day, heart filled with gratitude, but without the painful and messy consequences.
I thought about the selfish appeal of “live fast, die young,” about the pain that suicide inflicts on loved ones, and about the folly of assuming old age has little to offer. I thought about Jack Kerouac’s lonely death from excess drinking.
And I remembered my great-aunt Lavalette, who passed away some years ago at the age of 101.
After an independent and healthy life as a single woman, living by herself in a multi-story house, Lavalette had finally fallen and broken a bone. She recovered quickly for someone in her 11th decade, only to be shocked by the hospital bill that threatened to drain her carefully-managed savings.
Shortly after this event, on a call with my father, she declared, “This is not how it’s supposed to be,” and announced her intention to stop eating and drinking.
With a close friend by her side, Lavalette lasted a full week before passing. Near the end, as she drifted in and out of lucidity, my father spoke with her on the phone one more time.
At the end of the call, my dad told her, “We love you, and we’ll see you in heaven.”
Lavalette, a lifelong religious skeptic, replied, “Yeah, okay. Bye-bye.”
In many ways, my great-aunt’s life was ordinary. She worked as a secretary for the same company for 40 years. She raised Yorkshire Terriers and volunteered for the Red Cross. She traveled in Europe with friends. But mostly, she stayed in the same small town in Pennsylvania.
In another way, Lavalette was totally extraordinary. She grew old in good health, she lived life on her own terms, and she ended life on her own terms.
Lavalette did what she loved, right until the moment it was time to go.
I don’t know what the next 20, 40, or 60 years will bring.
Maybe I’ll meet someone I can’t live without, get married, buy a house, plant a garden, have kids, and become a stay-at-homeschool dad.
Maybe my body will betray me, dependency will be forced upon me, and I’ll watch some of my deepest loves fade into obscurity: hiking, running, dancing, travel.
Maybe my business will fail, my writing will find no audience, and my life will take such a bad turn that I’ll look back at the words I’ve written and marvel at their their sheer hubris, their naïve idealism.
I do not know the future, but I do know a few things:
If I died tomorrow, I'd be okay with that. I’ve pushed hard for love. My life is rich with memories, relationships, and few regrets. I made a positive impact on my tiny corner of the world. If I were hit by a car and had a few minutes to assess my choices, I imagine I’d feel content.
I’ve avoided many traps. As soon as I got a taste of pointless meetings, endless commutes, knee-jerk consumption, soul-sucking jobs, and other varieties of modern servitude, I tacked hard in the opposite direction. I’ve spent very little time doing things I don’t believe in.
I can always rejoin the standard path. I will not join the ranks of the corporate elite in this lifetime. But if I want to reenter the workforce and pursue a more normal lifestyle, I can. Doing what I love hasn’t meant forsaking all marketable skills.
I still have a soul. I don’t believe in immortal souls—but you know what I mean. I’ve avoided the slow death of the human spirit. I’ve retained a sense of hope, joy, and exuberance.
Something else I know:
The more I’ve given up, the better life has become. “Doing what you love” certainly involves taking positive steps, but it’s also about what you don’t do. What expectations you discard. What you give up.
Giving up the idea of a reliable paycheck. Giving up the assumption of home ownership. Giving up the expectation of finding a soulmate who will join you in a committed domestic existence. Giving up common notions of entertainment, consumption, and recreation. Giving up the idea of having children. Giving up the assumption that your life will continue, in good health, till ripe old age.
You may, of course still find yourself with a beautiful home, reliable income, loving partner, charming children, and vibrant health until your 101st year.
But knowing the person you are, do you suspect that these things will come through direct pursuit—or as a by-product of doing what you love?
Has attempting to follow the standard path lead to frustration and resentment?
If so, I invite you to join me, here on the crooked path.
Prepare for the future by staying in love with life today.