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Creating a life of significance amongst turmoil and chaos

Sue Brayne


Entering another lockdown and an increasingly uncertain future, it puts me in mind of how Earnest Becker writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, 'What man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance.' I know this to be true because I used to be a living example of this. We need to create a life of significance amongst turmoil chaos.

A little over thirty years ago, I was flying in a Cessna piloted by a friend on a gloriously sunny early August evening. In the distance, I could see the runway of the small airport we were heading to shimmering in the heat. This should have been one of those sublime moments in life, but I was too full of fear to even register it because in truth I was hanging on to life by my fingernails. The video production company I was working for was on the brink of going under. I had maxed out my credit cards, and I was in yet another failed relationship and terrified of being on my own again.

The plane hit an air bump. And, then the propeller stopped going around. We fell out of the sky and crash landed into a field. Miraculously neither my friend nor I were physically injured. But sitting beside the wreck of the plane it felt as if I had been emotionally frayed alive. I realised that the life I was living was a sham – that’s the word that dropped into my head – and unless I did something to change it, it would have been better to have died in the crash.

Creating Change

Time for Change

So, I did change my life. I knew that if I was going to make something of myself, I had to deal with everything that was keeping me locked into self-destructive behaviour and the excruciating shame this was causing me. Meanwhile, I was doing a really good job of that with excessive drink and taking any drugs I could get my hands on.

I had been brought up in a middle-class family and sent to boarding school. So, in essence, I could be prepared for an early marriage to someone suitable. This meant I ended up leaving school knowing exactly where Paris was and how to bake the perfect scone. However, I had no idea what it meant to live a life of significance. Instead, it felt as if I was walking around with a great big hole inside me. Without a clue of how to fill it.

Throughout the intensive healing journey, I went on, I kept returning to one fundamental truth. I was mortal. One day, and who knew when or how it might happen, my life would be over. And I knew I wanted to reach my deathbed feeling proud of who I was. Otherwise, what was the point of my life?

Learning About Death to find Significance in Life

Then a realisation popped into my head – to understand life I needed to start learning about death. That’s when things got really interesting because as I began to address my fear of death it helped me to address my fear of life. This was the moment when life began to work for me because I could see how my entire life was, in fact, a psychological and spiritual preparation for death. Knowing I was going to die and accepting I was going to die, helped me to stop lying to myself and pretending to be someone I wasn’t.

Time for Change

We, humans, love to make up stories when we are feeling confused, uncertain, fearful, or angry. These self-created stories make us feel superior and invincible because we believe we know what everyone else doesn’t know. There is an epidemic of these stories – or conspiracy theories – circulating right now. But all they are doing is inflicting further polarisation, fear, panic and, of course, self-righteousness onto our increasingly beleaguered world.

None of Us Know How It Will Unfold

The truth is none of us knows how life is going to unfold. We never have. Our world has been continually shifting and changing for billions of years. Exactly how all life on the planet has evolved into the present day. There always comes a point for all species during this passage of evolution when things peak and systems begin to collapse for other systems to develop. I look at the plane crash and my own subsequent collapse as a personal example of this. And I am so grateful it happened. It set me free to fully engage in creating a life worth living for.

I don’t want to be making up stories. However, it seems to me that humanity has reached such a point of collapse as well. It puts me in mind of Frodo saying to Gandalf in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. "I wish it need not have happened in my time," "So, do I," replies Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

Life is Part of Something Much Greater than Me

For me, this decision is about accepting that my life is part of something so much greater than just me. That there are systems at work in the universe that I have no idea about. It’s also about constantly asking myself, how can I continue to create a life of significance amongst all this turmoil and chaos.

Personally, I want to face up to the enormity of what is happening and be okay enough in myself to embrace the pain and the joy of being alive right now however challenging and scary this may become.

Life is presenting us all with the truth of our mortality. Therefore, let’s do everything we can to create a life worth living while we still have breath left in our body. This can be as simple as planting bulbs in readiness for spring, listening unconditionally to someone in distress, making the effort to be really kind and compassionate to each other or putting our arms around a child who is terrified by what their future holds. So, when we reach our deathbed, we can feel proud of contributing something of significance.

About Sue Brayne

Sue Brayne, author, speaker and inspirational person

Sue Brayne is an author, speaker, and a beautifully inspirational person. For the past 20 years, she has been helping people to transform their relationship with mortality through her end-of-life research, workshops and books on spirituality, consciousness, death and dying. Sue is also a Trustee of HELP Counselling Services.

Sue has an MA in the Rhetoric and Rituals of Death (King Alfred’s, Winchester) and a second MA in Creative Writing (Oxford Brookes). For many years she worked at a therapist, specialising in trauma, end of life issues, bereavement, and grief. Sue now hosts Death Cafes on Zoom, so please get in touch if you would like to be added to the mailing list.

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