On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I used to gaze at the ceiling, thoughts dancing around in my head. These thoughts were often about death, or rather, the inevitability of it. Once the idea of death trickles into my head, suddenly I'm frozen with tension and my eyes are wide open. I feel like I’m being pushed off a cliff without the possibility of being saved. Before I realize it, an hour has gone by.
My debilitating fear about dying and death has less to do with the event itself and more to do with the uncertainty that surrounds it. And it took me three decades to realize it. Death happens to all of us; yet, I know little about it. Where do we go when we die, I wonder. Most importantly, where does my soul go, if such a thing exists?
What really helped me come to terms with the concept of death was when I learned about an artist named Candy Chang, who created an art movement in her hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, called Before I Die.
Photo by Trevor Coe
Fueled by a personal tragedy, Chang came up with the idea of turning an abandoned building into a wall mural where anyone in the community can contribute. Her prompt, “Before I die, I want to____” invites people from all walks of life to stop and write down what they wish to do most before they die, and then step back and look at what others have written. To her surprise, the next day, the wall was completely filled up.
Since 2011, when the project started, Before I Die walls have been erected in over 75 countries and counting. Chang calls herself the “caretaker of over one million handwritten anxieties, hopes, pains and moments of grace in the 21st century.” These walls, along with her other projects, centers around community and sharing what’s most important to us.
Chang says: “During some of my darkest times, I’ve seen the value of public rituals to restore perceptive [sic], learn from the people around me, and remember that our shared struggles and desires far outweigh our differences. As the world feels more uncertain, distracting, and alienating, emotional infrastructure feels more important than ever.
"I create rituals to contemplate the human condition. Buildings, plazas, and walls become interactive spaces to reckon with the darker corners of our minds. Whether they’re written on the side of a building or hung on a gallery wall, each response is anonymous, unmasking the discomfort, dread, longing, gratitude, humor, pain, and grace found in every community. Each response is handwritten, loaded with character in the form of bold lines, pained scribbles, and modest letterforms. Together, they form an intimate portrait of our communities today and where we need help.”
This open door invitation into someone else’s mind is truly significant to me, because it made me realize that no matter how far apart or different we are, we are all alike in so many ways. Many of us want to travel, have a family, love someone and be loved back, do something that excites us and scares us at the same time. We all harbor similar fantasies about living overseas, landing our dream jobs, or starting that business. Most importantly, many of us want to be our true selves, to learn, and to appreciate what life has to offer.
By reframing the concept of death, Chang gave us permission to take control of our lives. Her project ushered in a new way of thinking about how life should be lived. It allowed us to see the commonality in our lived experiences. There is comfort in knowing that there are others who share the same hopes, dreams, and fears as we do. Making space for reflection and contemplation is truly a powerful tool to bring us all together in ways we hadn’t been before.
“Death is something that we're often discouraged to talk about, or even think about, but I've realized that preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do,” Chang said in her TED talk. “Thinking about death clarifies your life.” In other words, preparing for death by living your best life may be the best way to go.
Her art project is really profound to me because it shows the power that one person can make in their community. What's surprising is that Chang is not a traditional artist; she has experience in urban planning and simply wanted a way to connect with her community after some personal tragedy. So she reframed the idea of death as something to be expected and invites us to think about all the things we want to do before we die. It's the idea that life is worth living and we have much more to go.
Read more about the project and check out more photos on Candy Chang’s website
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