The movie The Bucket List is about two men whose cancer diagnoses cause their paths to cross as they share a hospital room. After each learn that they have no more than one year to live they – despite differences in personality, beliefs, and life experiences – tour the world together to complete a shared list they’d composed of things to do before they died. Things like sky dive, visit the Taj Mahal, and sit on the Great Egyptian Pyramids.
This movie reminds me of one of the points that existential and logotherapy emphasize: death.
Put most practically, we must know how we want to die before we know how to live. When we know how we want to die, we then know how to proceed with how we are to live.
Irvin Yalom, existential therapist, writes about the importance of death in The Gift of Therapy, a book of therapy advice written for therapists and clients alike. He writes,
The fear of death always percolates beneath the surface. It haunts us throughout life and we erect defenses – many based on denial – to help cope with the awareness of death…
Yet there are several good reasons we should confront death in the course of therapy. First, keep in mind that therapy is a deep and comprehensive exploration into the course and meaning of one’s life; given the centrality of death in our existence, given that life and death are interdependent, how can we possibly ignore it? From the beginning of written thought humans have realized that everything fades, that we fear the fading, and that we must find a way to live despite the fear and the fading. Psychotherapists cannot afford to ignore the many great thinkers who have concluded that learning to live well is to learn to die well.
Victor Frankl, Nazi concentration camp survivor and creator of logotherapy method for therapy, draws from his first-hand experience of the Holocaust to address the connection between living well and dying well. He writes in his book Man’s Search for Meaning:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Frankl’s focal point in living well and dying well includes the importance of creating meaning in one’s life and the importance of choice. He contends that in any circumstance – even those where all external freedoms have been taken away (i.e. concentration camp), one still has possession of his or her attitude, and that is one thing that simply cannot be taken away from anyone by anyone.
As we seek to live the best lives we can, The Bucket List, Yalom, and Frankl give us some guidance on how to do this. We can ask ourselves “What do I want to do before I die?” and “What kind of person do I want to be by the time I die?” And, making it more practical, “What are my circumstances – positive and negative (think job, marriage, finances, relationships with friends and family, dating relationship, spiritual development) – in which I want to exercise my freedom to choose my attitude?”