What would you do if you only had one week left to live?
What would you do if you only had one week left to live? Would you quit your job and start crossing off your bucket list? Would you spend time with loved ones? Or pay more attention to all the little things you normally wouldn’t — the classical music playing in the café you frequent or the wind brushing against the trees or even just the sun?
Ideally, we should be living like this right now, with a moment-to-moment awareness of our impermanence on this spinning blue planet we call home. The reality is, this is not the case for many of us. We take life for granted and I’m no exception here.
In my experience living abroad, my first encounter with death was when I was volunteering in Botswana. My colleague’s daughter suddenly became ill and shortly after passed away. She was 4-years-old.
In Kenya, I saw a body lying on the side of a highway covered by a white sheet. As we sped across the scene, I noticed a few other things, a puddle of blood surrounding that body and a parked truck. I could only imagine the tragedy that had just occurred.
In America, death is a taboo subject. People get uncomfortable when you mention it and pretend as if it’s something that doesn’t exist or somehow they’re immune to it. They’ll sweep the topic under the rug and move on to the next. They can’t allow themselves to entertain the thought that one day, they too will be gone. They’ll distract themselves with stimuli after stimuli until their reality becomes distorted with the latest consumerism trend.
When I was younger, I was very uncomfortable with death. It was an emotional and scary topic for me. In hindsight, I realized I was terrified of dying and the thought of it was too overwhelming to imagine.
My paternal grandfather passed away on July 4 last year. Even though we weren’t as close in the end, he was a prominent figure in my childhood. In his last decade, his health slowly deteriorated after two accidents that left him paralyzed from the waist down. This included his cognitive skills along with his ability to communicate and connect with others.
The more I encountered death, the more it made me value life. Experiencing his death triggered my investigation into the meaning of death and conversely of life itself.
First, I wanted to understand our history. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari gives us a timeline of our existence as the species, Homo sapiens. About 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters, one of which was our own grandmother.Roughly 2.5 million years ago, the first animal-like humans evolved in East Africa. Homo sapiens are not the only human species to have existed on Earth, but we are the only ones to have survived in the last 10,000 years.
Looking at history, our species’ existence is just a tiny part of a much larger evolutionary story, just like our other human brothers and sisters. Who knows when the next ecological catastrophe will occur that will wipe us all out. Perhaps we’re already beginning to experience it with climate change. If death is simply the natural progression of life, or in other words, if we all die in the end, why not make our human existence a fun and meaningful one?
This then led me to my own existential crisis and forced me to reflect on life and death with my human emotions involved.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
1. If life is short, why not live it to the fullest?
If we know that our individual existence is nothing but a blip on the evolutionary timeline, why waste our valuable and limited time?
We waste time when we get too caught up in our consumer culture, when we place too much emphasis on things we own and our outer appearance instead of investing in experiences that give life real meaning.
Free yourself from materialism and figure out what you truly value. Could it be picking up an new instrument, learning a new language, drawing, writing, gardening, pottery making, starting your own business? You get the idea.
Being true to who you are and figuring out what matters most to you is the first step. I know this is easier said then done. I’ve personally struggled with this for much of my existence. But once you nail it down, taking action to create the life you want to live is how you will make the most of your precious time.
2. The quality of our health is just as important as how long we live.
Our World in Data tells us that the average life expectancy for Americans in 2015 was 79 years compared to 49 years in 1900. Even though life expectancy has increased, having those additional years in good health is not guaranteed.
When I started practicing yoga, I learned that health isn’t just about our physical health and maintaining that area through diet and fitness, but also our mental health. Stress, anxiety and negative emotions can adversely impact our health too.
The more I learned, the more I realize just how much I didn’t know, that there are other aspects to our overall well-being such as the quality of our relationships, how fulfilled are we in our careers, and whether we feel like we’re growing and reaching our potential. The quality of our health rests on our ability to maintain and balance our well-being across all these different areas.
But what it really boils down to is the series of choices we make today that will not only impact the quality of our life tomorrow but far into old age, if we make it that far.
3. Relationships give life meaning.
Humans are social creatures. We need the support and help of other humans to survive and thrive. The proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” is still true today. We need a community to help children grow — teachers to educate, farmers to provide food, doctors to help with illness, law enforcement to ensure order and safety and most importantly, a family not limited to parents to nurture children at home.
In America, somewhere during our childhood development, we took on the views and traits of our individualistic culture. A few common characteristics include our values for independence and autonomy, to stand out and be unique.
In my experience, being hyper-individualistic left me feeling dissatisfied in my relationships, not just romantic ones, but also with family and friends. Instead of opening up and being vulnerable especially during hard times which fosters stronger connections, I’ve stopped myself from sharing with others just so I could appear self-reliant and strong, admirable traits in our individualistic society.
In Vietnam, I observed the complete opposite, a prevalence of the community and family bond. People living in small alleys seemed to care for one another, whether or not they were directly related. Resources were shared and support was always there. This made me question and shift how I was approaching my relationships.
If we live for connections, letting go of our individualistic tendencies and adopting a more collectivist approach is essential in developing meaningful relationships, and thereby having a more meaningful existence.
4. Happiness is a moment-to-moment choice.
Growing up, my understanding of happiness was poor. I knew it was something I had an “unalienable right”to, but I never understood what it meant to be truly happy until recently.
I thought happiness would come once I found my dream job. In truth, I’m still searching for it, but perhaps placing such a pressure on finding our passion/s and making a career out of it is actually missing the point.
Society taught us to chase happiness, that happiness needs to be searched for and attained before our time runs out, but happiness is not something we gain from our career or partner or what we own or wear. Don’t get me wrong, having these things do add to our life satisfaction.
I now understand that happiness is a fleeting emotion. We can choose to be happy regardless of our less-than-ideal circumstance. Of course, that doesn’t mean we aren’t affected by the unexpected curveballs life throws at us, but knowing that we have the ability to choose in spite of these setbacks, can empower us to choose happiness each and every moment.
I have been wrong many times in my life so far, especially with how I’ve been viewing and living it. Clarity came to me by thinking about death and I hope that by sharing what I’ve learned so far, you may feel encouraged to do the same.
Life is precious because of death, but why does it have to be something we shun to think or talk about? Why wait until the end is near to open Pandora’s box? Why not give ourselves time to process, understand and accept this natural phenomenon while time is on our side? And why can’t we live with the lessons that could be learnt now so that we are truly making the most of our time here on Earth?
Something Steve Jobs once said in a commencement speech that has always stuck with me:
“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
I challenge you to think about death, to use that powerful imagination of yours and visualize what it would be like towards the end of your life. What would you want to feel proud of? What would be your biggest regrets?
Then think about the changes you need to make in your life now, so that if someone were to ever ask you the question, “What would you do if you only had one week left to live?”
Without needing to pause and think, you’d be able to say, “I wouldn’t change a single thing.” Now isn’t that a life worth living?