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In a recent interactive video, the English comedian Ricky Gervais was asked which of the following he’d prefer: to be told his death date and live longer or not to be told it but live a shorter life?
The person who posted the question didn’t specify how much shorter of a life it would be so Gervais, whilst debating the merits of each possibility, suggested five years. I would have doubled that, to make it more impactful.
A grim choice
As unrealistic as the question is — although it does bring to mind the old joke about a doctor giving a man more time to live because he can’t pay his bill — it, nonetheless, presents an interesting choice, if one imagines a choice was compulsory.
Gervais said it was an impossible question. Basically, choosing not to know, he would take (five) years off his life, something he might be aware of on his deathbed — if he got such a luxury when breathing his last that is. But electing to know would, he said, give him no comfort at all.
In contrast, I’ve often thought it would be nice to know when I’m going to die. In fact, the choice above makes it somewhat of a no-brainer for me.
By knowing when I’m going to die and in selecting that option I get more life years, well for one I can budget and plan better. If I were to discover that I’ve fewer years left than I’d thought, well then I could be less frugal than I am currently.
In these pandemic times and all that has come with them — restricted movement, more uncertainty than normal, the feeling that we’re going through dangerous societal changes — finding out that I’m going to be around less than I thought, well I’d actually take that as a positive right now.
‘Rather than the quite impractical live-each-day-as-if-it’s-your-last approach, it’s better to try to add a sense of urgency to what you do.’
I’m all on for a long life as long as I’m active and fully with it — as “with it” as I’ve ever been that is — right up to my last days. The idea of spending years bed bound, suffering from dementia or the like doesn’t appeal at this remove.
An urge to live
Flipping the consequences in the above choice, however, makes it far trickier for me. That is, if being told my death date resulted in a shorter life, say by ten years.
For example, imagine I had to make the choice today, aged 36. In my head, whenever I do think about this, I figure that I haven’t even reached the halfway stage of my life, barring a fatal accident.
So, if by choosing to know when I’m going to die reduced my time on this planet by ten years and I got an answer of, say 40, I’d be in a state of shock, to say the least.
For one, it would mean that I was “originally” only going to live to 50, much less than I’d envisaged. Secondly, and even worse, by opting to know, my life has been cut by 20 per cent and I’ve just been left with four years to live.
That is, I certainly hope, a most unlikely example. Of course, one never knows, though. And most of us have plenty of sad reminders of this.
In a more general sense, that we don’t know when the Grim Reaper will come a-knocking, that it could be much sooner than we think, lends itself to the saying ‘live each day as if it’s your last.’
That’s fine in theory. In practice, it’s rather more difficult.
Altering such an approach slightly so as to make it less dramatic — and less damaging, as it potentially could be if and when you discover it’s actually not your last day — is to look to add a sense of urgency to your life (as “our friend” Jordan Peterson explained in a recent podcast interview).
This should help one focus on more immediate issues, to work towards attainable goals and worry less about things that are a long way off, never mind reflecting too much on past mistakes or regrets. It’s an outlook I’m trying to adopt, with some difficulty, in any case.
Live in the moment (as best one can — the powers-that-be are making that more difficult these days) with a glance to the future whilst never losing sight of past lessons learnt. As simple as that, eh?
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.