How Hanging Concentrates the Mind



by Sue Kemple, CEO, My Last Soundtrack

I’ve never been one to shy away from thoughts of death. In fact, you might say in the first decade of my life, I was morbidly fascinated with it. I used to roam the neighborhood looking for dead birds to inter in the little cemetery I cultivated (in a neighbor’s yard down the street!), and mark their graves. One of the games I’d persuade my younger siblings to play with me was called, simply, Funeral, where I would preside over the ceremony in which my brother Marc (usually) was playing dead inside our oversized toybox. And in the backyard, my father had installed a wooden beam between two trees for various baby and tire swings, but I fancied that beam gallows where, using my sister’s jump ropes, stuffed animals and dolls served as wild west bad guys we (okay, I) hanged to death. A particularly morbid fascination that also raised the questions in my mind: who actually does this sort of thing to other people? And when it’s about to be done to you, what kinds of thoughts would be running through your mind?

Samuel Johnson, in response to questions about a ghostwritten letter he penned in an effort to save a man from execution by hanging, asserted that “When a man knows he is to be hanged… it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

If only we all realized that, in truth, we are all about to be hanged. Life is so very short.

Since taking the helm of My Last Soundtrack in September, I’ve been given the gift of contemplating death in new and profound ways all the time, especially its relationship to music. For instance, I spent time yesterday with David Bowie’s final gift to his fans, the video for his song Lazarus. It was stunning how he, as an old musician friend of mine so eloquently put it, “used his own dying as a canvas for his art.” It is, like all good art, a thought-provoking piece of work. This article underscores why we are happier when we spend time contemplating our demise. I know that’s true just from all the time I’ve spent since September contemplating it on account of this project. But it’s also clear from such a video that being so in touch with our mortality can also be fecund, creative, and life-giving.

We can’t all be David Bowie. (Nor would most of us want to be.) But our lives, all of them, can be art. What if we each used our dying as the canvas for our lives – not just when we know death is imminent, but especially when we don’t? What if we opened ourselves up to that kind of exposure, keeping the end in mind, the fact of inevitable death ever in focus, concentrating our minds on what’s important: meaning, purpose, love?  What kind of passions might we discover, gifts might we uncover, and legacies might we build?

This date also happens to be my birthday – a day that marks the moment I came into this world, but also portends each year with a louder voice the fact that one day, I will leave it. So I am committed to a stronger resolve to keep my death ever before me, so that my life might be all it can be. By doing so over the past four months, I’ve certainly experienced all kinds of… well, amazing grace.

Postscript: we are also SO CLOSE to launching our new logo and website – keep your eye out for the exciting news here in the next few weeks!

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