There is a big upside to the downside of life’s brevity: it focuses our attention on getting things done.
Many years ago I volunteered at an Evanston-based hospice that worked with the dying. We were there to do essential chores and relieve the main caregivers for a few hours so they could get out. Given my background in journalism I thought I could help clients narrate their life stories, and indeed, I did assist one elderly gentleman with his memoirs.
But before starting, all volunteers were required to attend several half-day training sessions. At one, our facilitator asked us to list in order the 10 things that gave us the most pleasure in life. I’m sure my list was similar to most everyone else’s—spending time with family, enjoying good food, hanging out with friends, listening to music, reading, traveling, etc.
“OK, starting at the bottom of the list, cross out the last item,” the facilitator instructed. I ran a line through “Taking long walks.”
“Now cross out the next item.” Gone was “Watching movies.”
We deleted a few more items on the list. “You get the idea,” she said. “For someone who is dying, all their favorite activities are eventually denied them.”
I was perhaps 35 years old at the time and while this was an interesting, even eye-opening exercise, it did not have the impact of real life. Like everyone else at that age, I thought I was decades away from these considerations.
But the fact is, as I have learned to appreciate, life is always shorter than one can imagine. We are all only a step away from disaster, whether that step is getting into a car or climbing into a bathtub. Of course, we know this in theory but in practice rarely give it much thought. Most of our daily activities are too routine for us to really worry about them. Even when we read or hear about disasters, they are usually someone else’s problem.
Until they aren’t. Every day, some 7,200 people die in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means every 10 days, on average, almost the entire population of Evanston is wiped out. More than one-third of those deaths are sudden and unexpected, from heart attacks and auto accidents and dozens of other causes.
The point is not to be morbid or depressing. Quite the contrary, it is to heighten our awareness of the tenuous and ephemeral nature of life, and the joy we should get from living. As Virgil said, “Death plucks at my ear and says: Live! I am coming.”
Which is why the exercise of listing our most important priorities, our personal bucket list, is so important. To really live, we need to prioritize what it is we want to do, and then go about doing it.
So make the list, study and hold it close, and adjust your life to make it happen.