An Experiment in Dying

When talking with friends and family about what I’ve been through, the topic of my radical perspective shift comes up over and over. And I always say that “staring down the barrel of that gun” or “dangling on the edge of that cliff” or “looking straight into the abyss” will do that do a person. But I am also quick to follow up with the qualifier that a person can’t force that experience onto themselves. It just has to happen— and dying will do that. 

In my much loved (now dog-eared and marginalia-covered) book Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, he writes the same sentiment— that one cannot force the second phase of their spirituality to happen. It just does. But he also mentions that it seems common for it to happen to people sometime around their mid-40s. 

I have heard of someone who did manage to simulate their own dying experience and come away changed forever as a result. Kevin Kelly is former editor-at-large at WIRED magazine and has his hands in a long list of fascinating projects. He’s written several books about technology and the future. I’ve read his latest futurist book, The Inevitable, and recommend it if you’re interested in things like what automation will look like, AI, and the singularity. At the heart of his futurist predictions there are very rooted and optimistic outlooks on what we as humans will learn from our own advancements. To paraphrase his take on automation, when robots learn to do everything we do and obviate the need for work, the result will be that we will learn, deeply, what it is to be human. 

The following summary of this story was made into the very first episode of This American Life. He also reflects on it during a long-form interview on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast.

In his late 20s, Kevin Kelly traveled the world as a photographer and was on assignment in Jerusalem. Locked out of his hostel for the night before Easter Sunday he wandered the streets and eventually fell asleep on a slab of marble in a church where, presumably, the cross had be raised for Jesus’s crucifixion. The view overlooked the empty tomb and the next day over Easter sunrise he, for reasons unknown to him, was taken with the conviction that Jesus had come out of that empty tomb after his death. 

Even with his new-found religious convictions, Kelly constantly struggled with overall meaning and the “What should I do next?” question. 

And that’s what I was pondering when I sort of was laying there napping and— I wouldn’t say it’s a voice but there was an idea that came into my mind that just would not go away. And that was that I should live as if I would die in six months. That I should really truly live. And that I could not tell for certain whether I would really die, but that either way I should live as if I was going to die.

And so, that was the assignment. I’m pretty logical and after thinking the thought that I should live as if I was going to die in six months, the first thought that comes to my head was, you know, ‘Well that’s pretty silly. I have no evidence whatsoever. I could live like I’m going to die in six months and not die at all.” It would just be kind of an interesting exercise.

But at the same time it was equally probable that I might die in six months. It happened all the time. And there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t die.

And so fairly quickly I decided that I was to live as if I really believed that I was going to die in six months. Which is what I set out to do.

Kevin Kelly, This American Life

Kelly felt drawn to return to his hometown and simply be with his parents.

“I was really shocked by that. Because I thought that, given six months to live, I would climb Mount Everest or I would go scuba diving into the depths of the ocean or get in a speedboat and see how fast I could go. But instead I wanted to go back home and be with my family for that time.

I of course did not tell anybody my crazy idea. This is in fact the first time I’m really talking about it publicly. Because it was a very scary and sort of alarming idea. I never told anybody why I was coming home.”

Kevin Kelly, This American Life

Three months into his assignment, Kelly got an itch to travel so decided to visit his brothers and sisters, who were living in various places across the country. But Kelly felt that it was very important he see them before he “died.” He traveled 5,000 on his bike to visit and spend time with them. He timed his return trip home to arrive on the evening before his six months were up. His “final” night, oddly enough, was October 31st, Halloween.

His homecoming and “final” night were understated, which was exactly what he was craving. I feel this way all the time when knowingly doing something for the last time. I don’t want it to be difficult, or special, or crazy. I want to experience it as it is. Sometimes it’s not up to us but sometimes it just works out.

I came into their house on Halloween day. And I was so filled with ideas and things and emotions that I didn’t really say very much. I couldn’t say very much. I think we had a wonderful dinner, they were of course glad to see me, cause they hadn’t seen me in a long time. They knew when I was coming back, and we had a wonderful dinner, we had baskets of candy which I gave out to the kids. 

We had a discussion that night which was about nothing in particular, it was not about the future, it was just talking about our family, my brothers and sisters, and I was telling all that I’d learned about them. It was a very together, and not a very dramatic, evening, but just a pleasant one. The kind of one that you might have a memory about as you were dying. Not a special evening, but just an ordinary evening.

Kevin Kelly, This American Life

His memory of going to bed that night echoes so many of my own experiences— some before the surgery, and some at home in recovery.

I went to bed that night – which was a very difficult thing to do, because I was fully prepared at that point never to wake up again. I had been praying, I’d gotten everything arranged. At that point I’d fully gone through in my own mind, my own soul, all the things I might have regretted, and I had righted as many of those as I thought I could, through letters, and I was prepared, as much as anybody could be prepared to die.

I went to bed while the kids were still ringing doorbells. And I went to sleep because I was very tired after that long trip. And I didn’t know what was going to happen the next day. I thought that I had done all that I could.

Kevin Kelly, This American Life

And then the next day, he wakes up. You have got to listen to the audio here because he becomes extremely emotional. The quotation below reads like it’s broken sentences but it’s really his emotions not letting him complete his sentences during the interview. It gives you a sense of how seriously he took this assignment and how heavily it weighed on him. I have felt the some feelings waking up after difficult nights. It’s eerie how his words sound like my own thoughts.

And, the next moring I woke up. And. The next morning I woke up and it was as if.

The next morning I woke up and it was as if I had the entire, my entire life again.

I had.

The next morning I woke up and I had my entire life again, I had my future again.

There was nothing special about the day. It was another ordinary day.

I was reborn into ordinariness.


What more could one ask for?

Kevin Kelly, This American Life

His assignment taught him about who he really was. It reveal his True Self. It changed his perspective and allowed him to follow the path he was really searching for. Looking back, he reflects on his devotion to staying present during his assignment, when he longed for a future.

I think there are a lot of people who have trouble staying in the present. There are some people who like to slip into the past, as a means perhaps to fantasize or escape. And they find that the past place that they retreat to…

I often retreat to the future…
One of the ways I dealt with this was that I was actually able, by the last weeks, to not think about my life beyond Hallowe’en. There was a way in which, each time a thought came up about something that was beyond this horizon, I just said ‘Nope, can’t think about it, doesn’t work. You have to dwell in the present.’

At the same time I was doing that – and I was able to do that – I also decided that it was an entirely unnatural and inhumane way to live. And that having a future is part of what being human is about. That when you take away the future for humans, you take away a lot of their humanness. That it’s not actually a very good thing to live entirely in the present. That one needs to have a past, and one needs to have a future, to be fully human.

Kevin Kelly, This American Life

…[O]ne of the things that I discovered in my six months of trying to live as ifI was going to die in six months because as I was coming close to that date, which happened to be Halloween, October 31st, it was I kept cutting off my future. I may be like you. I tend to live in the future much more than the past. I’m always imagining. I’m saving this for someday when I’m going to do this. I’m looking forward. I’m going to do this here. I was very much in the future and then suddenly that future was being cut down day by day. I was thinking, “Why am I taking pictures? I’m not taking photographs because I’m not going to be here in another two months.”

There was all these things that I’m cutting out and as I was cutting them out, I had this realization, which was the thing I took away from this thing, which is that I was becoming less human. That to be fully human we have to have a future. We have to look forward to the future. That is part of us is looking into the future. After I came out of the, I embraced that. I’m saying, “Well, that future forward facing that’s what I do. That’s what I want to do and that’s what I write about it.” It’s very hard because the paradox about the future is that there are lots of impossible things that happen all the time.

Kevin Kelly, The Tim Ferriss Show

The word that sticks out to me in Kelly’s lesson from his assignment is paradox. He talks about how living in the present actually became oppressive, and that he needed a future. But it was his assignment, and the gravity of it, that let him embrace doing what he really loved— writing about the future. 

I live this paradox everyday (and do my best to embrace it). The entire month of May, when I said goodnight to Mina, Will, and Paige I was literally saying goodbye. Every night. It was emotional exhaustion. At some point, I had to stop. My therapist urged me to “put it on a shelf. You’ve done a good job, now put it away and move on.” I did. Now my goodnights are goodnights but very full goodnights.

When I was recovering, and not allow to go up stairs or lift anything, and living in my own guest room, I wrote this down and taped it up on my wall:

“Anyone who wants to save his life, must lose it. Anyone who loses his life will find it. What gain is there if you win the whole world and lose your very self? What can you offer in exchange for your one life?”

The Gospel of Matthew

3 thoughts on “An Experiment in Dying”

  1. I love this one, you brave and beautiful man. –julia

    Julia Sibley-Jones voice and text: 803-414-3275

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    On Thu, Aug 15, 2019 at 10:08 AM Enlightenment at Gunpoint wrote:

    > johncatoe posted: ” Kevin Kelly, photo by Christopher Michel. When talking > with friends and family about what I’ve been through, the topic of my > radical perspective shift comes up over and over. And I always say that > “staring down the barrel of that gun” or “dangling on ” >

  2. Hey John, I know just what Kevin Kelly means about sharing an ordinary night with his family, rather than a special one. I think we spend a lot of time focusing on creating special memories with our loved ones, but it is typically the snippets of our daily lives that come to us during quiet moments and make us smile. Some of my happiest memories with my kids involve the school bus stop. I can vividly picture just what my kids’ faces look like in the 4 p.m. sunlight of the bus parking lot. Our beloved dog passed away this past spring, and when I think of Beau, I picture him running for the kids when their bus pulled up every day. I imagine your nightly routine with your family is much the same way. It may not be possible to imbue one particular goodnight with all the love you want to share, but the accumulated hundreds of loving goodnights will certainly have that effect. Maybe that’s the sweet spot between living in the present while framing the future you want.

    1. YES and I think that what’s so frustrating about being in a hospital, especially for a long period of time. You want things to be normal but nothing is. There is all of this attention all the time. At some point I surrendered and let Paige and the hospital staff become my normal. Those connections, however brief, kept me feeling a part of something larger and mysterious.

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