05/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Would You Do if You Were Going to Die Tomorrow? Or Not.

We have all played out this drill in our heads -- the doctor informs us we are ill, and gives us six months to live. What would we do? For most of us, this exercise conjures up images of traveling to places we always wanted to see, spending more time with friends and family, and perhaps even adding in some daring stunts like skydiving or rock climbing. For me, this seems a logical response -- try to cram as much activity into our remaining months as possible.


But what if the doctor told you there was a good chance you would die as soon as tomorrow. But there was an equal chance that you would live another 5 years, or 20 years. Or 50...

This is the exact scenario that Tom, a close friend of mine, was recently presented with. In a completely unexpected tragedy, a month ago Tom's brother died of a heart attack. He had just turned 40 and was in perfect health. He didn't drink, exercised regularly, and had very low cholesterol levels. And yet, one day, on his way to the gym, he grabbed his chest. Within 15 minutes he was in the emergency room. Within the hour he was pronounced dead. His aorta had simply split open, and there was nothing anyone could do.

The doctors later informed Tom that his brother had suffered from had a very rare disorder, one that could not have been predicted or prevented. One day, the disorder presents itself, and you are gone. The doctor also told Tom that, because they were brothers, there was a reasonable chance that he too carried the same disorder. And there was no way to ever know.

You may die when you are 90.

Or any day prior to that.

What would you do differently? How would you view the world if presented with this scenario? I won't speak for Tom, but having watched this all play out in his life, it is something I have been thinking quite a lot about.

Sure, you would likely identify the things, both in the short and long term, that you wanted to experience in your life. Activities. Relationships. Contributions.

But I think this scenario would also lead you to think about the things that you want to give up. Like stress and worry, for example. Sure, my boss at times is a pain in the rear, but where does that concern rank in comparison to my health and longevity? Pretty low. As does frustration over my commute, and the car or the house that I may never be able to afford. Or the pettiness that exists in my family relationships. Or whatever is being said about whomever. None of that really matters in comparison, does it?

Regarding your health, sure its unpleasant that life has dealt you this circumstance, but in the end whatever happens is entirely out of your control. And you clearly shouldn't stress and worry over that which you have absolutely no control.

And so it is that from this tragedy, over time a gift may be revealed. For Tom, this may lead to an increased sense of urgency to live life to its fullest. And also a heightened sense of perspective as to what truly matters and what does not. What should be cherished and what should be ignored. What should be celebrated and what should be forgiven.

Thinking about life in this way leads us to summon the courage to follow our own hearts and intuition. To live life on our own terms and not be directed or judged by other people's opinions or artificial definitions of success.

None of us really know when we will die. But we are all in control of the moment when we choose to start living.

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