In 1969, Joseph Stein together with John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) adapted the novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis into a Broadway musical. The show opens (and ends) with the song "Life Is," with lyrics that bolster Alexis Zorba's credo that you must grab life while you can.
In 1978, I was a graduate student and teaching assistant with the philosophy department at Miami University. One interdisciplinary course that I taught was "Confronting Death." During class one day, I asked my students, "If you were given the option to know when you were going to die, would you want to know?"
While some said no, others were adamant about their yes. Pressing on a bit I then asked, "What would be the benefit of that knowledge?"
Many students thought it would help them to plan their lives. I recall comments such as:
"If I knew I was going to die at 43, then I would work harder so I could retire sooner."
"If I'm going to die when I'm 32, then I'm not going to waste time working. I'm just gonna live."
"If I have 50 more years, then I've got plenty of time to do things."
"Interesting," I remarked. "So, if I understand you all correctly, knowing when you're going to die enables you to put off doing, to a much later date, something you would ordinarily do in the near future."
One young woman reinforced my analysis. "For example, my boyfriend and I want to get married and have kids after I graduate. But if I'm going to live to be 75, then I can put off having kids until I'm in my 30s. This way we can have ten years together, just the two of us, before we start a family."
"Is having a family important to you?" I asked.
"Absolutely! I love kids. We both do. Children would complete our marriage."
"Okay," I said. "So, knowing you would not die until you were 75-years-old gives you the confidence to put off having children, which is something that is vitally important to you and your boyfriend, until you're, say, 36-years-old, right?"
"Yes. I'd have the time to wait."
"Okay," I paused for dramatic effect. "What if at age 75 you died as result of injuries sustained in an accident... an accident you were in when you were 25-years-old, and you had spent those 50 years in a vegetative state. What does that do to your plans?"
The class erupted.
"I never said you could know the conditions or situation that led up to or caused your death. My question was: 'If you were given the option to know when you were going to die, would you want to know?'
"The message is this," I continued. "We should not postpone things that we know we want to do. None of us will live forever; none of us know when we will die, or the state of our health throughout our lifetime. Therefore, we should try to live each day as if it were our last, and each day we should try to do one thing that brings us joy."
Forty years after the premiere of "Zorba" and nearly three decades after I blew my students' minds, screenwriter Justin Zackham wrote "The Bucket List." The film, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, follows two terminally ill men on their road trip with a wish list of things to do before they "kick the bucket." Some of the desires on their bucket list included:
• Witness something truly majestic
• Selflessly help a complete stranger
• Laugh till I cry
• Kiss the most beautiful girl in the world
• Get a tattoo
• Go skydiving
• Sit on the Great Egyptian Pyramids
What would you like to do, but think you do not have the time for doing so? It can be something as simple as learning the lyrics to a song you really like, or as daring as climbing Mount Rainier. Or it may be telling someone you love him or her, or that you are sorry for something you've done or said. Get started on your bucket list. Add to it often. Make a promise to yourself to try doing one of the desires on your list each day or week.
Rita Schiano is an adjunct professor at Bay Path College, where she teaches philosophy and stress management courses. She is the founder of Live A Flourishing Life™, which melds her three professions: philosophy instructor, stress management instructor and resilience coach, and freelance writer. Her book, "Live a Flourishing Life," is used for the college program and in private training programs.
Rita also conducts stress management and resilience-building workshops funded by the Massachusetts Dept. of Industrial Accidents. She is actively involved with Maine Resilience, a program coordinated with the effort, materials and information offered by the American Psychological Association and the Maine Psychological Association through their Public Education Programs. Rita is an Associate Member of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). Visit her online at her personal website and at Red Room.
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