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Chris Guillebeau

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Chasing Daylight: Some Thoughts on Mortality

Posted: 12/03/10 02:21 PM ET

I recently read two books about the choices people make when faced with the knowledge of their forthcoming death. The first book is called Last Acts, and was written by a doctor who worked predominantly with hospice patients.

Throughout the book, people make different choices -- some seek to create closure with their loved ones and prepare as much as possible to say farewell to life as we know it. Others refuse to accept the reality of their forthcoming death and try to fight as long as possible. The author writes non-judgmentally, but also shares his belief that those who accepted the circumstances and attempted to create closure made the better choice than those who chose to pretend they weren't dying.

Then I read Chasing Daylight, a similar book from a very different perspective: instead of being written by a healthy doctor working with sick patients, it was written by an executive who was given less than 90 days to live due to a rapidly-appearing brain tumor. In this book, the executive considers himself fortunate to have the chance to effectively count down the days until his death. Within days of learning about the tumor, he makes a list of everyone in his life he wishes to say goodbye to. Then he begins contacting all of them, one-by-one, to let each person know what they meant to him. Some people he contacts are uncomfortable, afraid, or even angry with his desire to "close" relationships. But as he says in the book, no one is going to overrule the wishes of a dying man, so he pushes ahead.

I read both books very quickly, with the sense that when you are reading about someone whose days are limited, you shouldn't wait too long before finding out what happens with them. In different ways, both books demonstrate the need to live deliberately instead of just passively filling the days.

This brings us to a good question I heard recently (from Jamey in Little Rock):

If we were no longer here tomorrow, who would notice?

Jamey is a pastor who often asks this question of his congregation, but don't let that put you off -- I think it's an excellent question for everyone to think about, regardless of background. Would anyone notice if you were gone, and if so... what would they notice? Does that kind of thinking produce regrets? (And if so, is there anything we can do about them?)

***

Thinking about the end also helps to think about the present. When the author of Chasing Daylight realizes he has only 90 days left to live, he immediately resigns from his job as CEO -- even though he loved his job and derived a lot of fulfillment from it. Some of the hospice patients in Last Acts seek to reclaim creative projects they had abandoned earlier in life. Almost everyone in both books, at least those who are able to deal with the knowledge of their impending death, reflects about the importance of creating "perfect moments" and living in the present.

Most of the time these days, I wake up excited and go to sleep excited. Sometimes I even wake up in the middle of the night thinking about all the projects I want to work on. So many countries left! New adventures, new friends, trips, writing projects, business ventures, etc.

I don't want it to end, and I don't expect it to end for a while. But reading Last Acts and Chasing Daylight served as good reminders that we don't always get to choose how things turn out, so it's important to make sure we are deliberate in the things we do have control over.

From refugees to survivors of all kinds, I've met a lot of people whose lives have been altered through trauma and near-death experiences. In my own life, I can pinpoint a few experiences that shook me up and caused me to rethink my priorities, especially a major change that came about after 9/11 when I was depressed and trying to find a way to engage with the world. The problem is that these events don't come along very often (for good reason), and when they do come along, you don't always have a choice in how to respond.

Instead of responding to trauma, therefore, it's better if you can avoid a wake-up call like that to create change in your life. You don't have to wait for a 9/11, a car crash, another near brush with death to think about what really matters. You can do so right now, today, no matter what else is happening in your life.

As for me, I do my best to live in the present while looking forward to the future. It's not always easy to do this, even if you're happy with your life, as I am. Over here, it helps to get up on Sunday mornings and run for at least an hour without listening to music. (I like listening to music when I exercise, but it also tends to zone me out -- so sometimes it's good to just run.) When I travel, I go for long walks alone.

I balance these behaviors, which are solitary by design, with the need to contribute to something bigger than myself, and hopefully make the world a better place along the way. I feel glad to be alive and aware that all of this is a beautiful gift. I want to take it as seriously as it deserves. Mary Oliver put it this way:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In various forms, questions like that are what I believe we should think about every single day. How would you respond?

 

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