Finding Meaning: Would You Want to Know?

One of my colleagues at MU taught a class on medical ethics.  He asked his students if they would like to know when they are going to die. Would you? If I could tell you right now exactly when you would die, would you want to know?  Would it affect how you lived your life?  It turns out that most people don’t want to know when their time will be up.  Rather than being able to plan for it, to get things in order, to use the time most judiciously, or most delightfully, they would feel overwhelmed.  They would never be able to get it out of their mind.  Never escape the presence of death.  Others, of ocurse, want to know.  They want to be able to plan.  They feel that, if they knew, they could make good choices about how to spend their time.  If I just have two hours to go, I’d rather have a picnic with my wife than see a movie.  If I have a year to go I can make a will, buy life insurance, avoid probate.  Would I work sixty hour weeks?  Would I take a job that required an hour commute each way? Would I miss my son’s baseball game?  Would I miss my daughter play the lead in the school play?

If you found out that today was your last day, would you live it differently?  Almost certainly.  Today, for instance, I went to the grocery store.  I bought wine, gin, avocados, limes, shrimp, and a piece of salmon for dinner.  I planned on having a shrimp appetizer and salmon with some basmati rice for dinner.  And then I was going to go to Andrea’s party.  All in all, a nice day.  Perhaps even a very nice day.  Well, not very nice because I did all these things alone and often I am tired of spending time alone.

If I knew today was my last day, though, I would no doubt do something differently.  Even though today was pleasant I wouldn’t spend any part of my last day grocery shopping.  Every now and then I come across that proverb “Live every day like it was your last,” and I think how stupid that is.  If I did this I would never buy groceries, never take my car in for an oil change, and never mow the lawn.

When you watch a friend die, you can’t help contemplating your own mortality.  And the salience of one’s own mortality can lead to a lot of soul searching.  This is what the hockey guys were doing. Standing around the waiting room or waiting outside the hospital they were thinking and talking about what seeing Kevin die made them feel.  Like anyone they were wondering if they were spending their lives the way they ought to be.  They mentioned family and friends, and the way that they treat others. All the standard things that come to mind when one experiences an existential crisis.

Not long after Kevin’s last day, I was on a committee for a graduate student who was defending her dissertation.  Unfortunately, she did not pass.  The work was of poor quality and everyone on the committee thought she failed. You can imagine that if I wouldn’t spend my last day grocery shopping, even for wine and gin,  I certainly wouldn’t spend it telling some unfortunate student that years of work had just been washed down the drain.  But that wasn’t my last day.  What if I found out I had a week to live,  would I have spent two of my last 168 hours on a dissertation defense,  even a successful one. I am sure the answer is no.  I live in Columbia, MO, and though it is a nice town,  I would not choose to spend my last week here.

Thankfully, I did not have a week to go.   But would my answer be any different if I had a month to live.  Would I spend two of my last 672 hours on a failed dissertation defense?  I think not. How long would I need to have to live in order to agree to spend two hours on a dissertation defense.  Six months? A year? Two years? I think if I had six months to live, I would give up my job, find someone to travel with and go see and do all the things I have always wanted to see and do.

If I had a year to live, I would plan to use some of that time to travel to far off lands.  But most of the time I would spend time enjoying the little things that make up everyday life.  If we are going to find joy,  it is going to be in the little things in life.  In going to the grocery store to buy gin and wine and shrimp and salmon to make a nice dinner.  But one that I would share with friends, rather than eating alone as I will tonight.  I would go to the gym, take my car in for an oil change, and spend two hours at a failed dissertation defense. But I would do these things intentionally,  carefully,  thoroughly.  People would know that if I was spending time with them it was only because I valued them and time spent with them.

But I would also use my limited time as an excuse to get out of anything I didn’t want to do.  “Life’s too short” is already an excuse that people use to avoid spending time in unpleasant ways.  And if I only had a year to live, “life’s too short” would be especially true.  And I would absent myself from situations with petty bickering,  backstabbing, and endless discussions with no conclusion.  I would stop interacting with people who are small-minded, prejudiced,  self-absorbed, and full of hate.

The common element to those things I would continue and discontinue doing is other people.  I would participate in the lives of people I valued.  And not in the lives of those I did not.  And, would I still serve on a failed dissertation defense?  I think I would, but please forgive me if I change my mind.


Posted on by alan Posted in Finding Meaning

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