The Homework Assignment

A lot of books on living your life tell you to live your life with the end in mind. The theory is that if you realize your own mortality you will get more out of your time one earth. This advice is usually coupled with the old chestnut that no one lies on his death bed and thinks, “I should have spent more hours at work.” The point is your days will have more meaning if you think about both the finite amount of time you have left and the things you will want to look back on. Some books even suggest writing an epitaph.

I don’t know.

During one of the many discussions before Elena’s funeral, we talked about how people behave when they get older. Like so many of the discussions that week, who said what or even what exactly was said is kind of a blur. But someone said that as people get older they get “more like themselves”. The sweet old person was probably very nice as a younger person but has just gotten more so. The person who was a jerk in middle age seems intolerable in their twilight years.

I wonder if living with the end in mind makes us better people, makes us different people, or just makes us more like ourselves.

If you knew you had a couple of months to live, how would you spend your money? Would you run up an incredible credit card debt knowing that you wouldn’t be around to pay it off? Would you give to the charities and causes you care about? Would you buy that extravagant item that you’ve always dreamed of but never thought practical? Would you give money to people you know who need it? Would you give money to people you don’t know? Would you decide that there was no point in buying anything material for yourself, you’ll just be gone anyways?

Now, imagine you don’t have a couple of months to live. Imagine you are like most of us and have no idea how long you have to live. There’s a practical side of you that knows you need some amount of money and material goods to live in relative comfort. But, you are living with the end in mind. Now, how do you spend your money?

Maybe money is too easy. Think instead of interpersonal relationships. Think about those people who try you patience. How would you treat them if you only had a couple of months to live? With a limited amount of time left, how much of it would you devote to those people who choose to be unhappy? Would you try to help them see the value in what they have or would you surround yourself with people who are happy and fulfilled? When someone is rude or insensitive to you, would you take time to get angry or would you let it go?

Again, what changes when you don’t know how much time you have left but you want to live conscious of your eventual death?

Kim and I were talking about that this week. There was someone we ran into who was very negative and self-involved. They projected an unhappiness that was as real as if it was another person sitting in the room next to them. It was sad.

I told Kim that I knew we are advised to treat people in the context of our own mortality. That feels selfish to me. You treat others nicely so that they say nice things about you after your dead.

What if we treat people in the context of their mortality? What if we think about the limited time that other people have left to live? Do we become too indulgent?

I think of that in the context of Elena. The night before she died, she had friends over playing. She played for a couple of hours and then I made her stop and finish her homework. The kids were over playing and she loved doing her homework. She’d call out to them every once in a while. She wasn’t unhappy or being punished – but if I’d known she was going to die the next day, would I have made her do her homework?

There is a mathematical legend of Evariste Galois who spent the night before he was to die in a duel writing letters to friends as well as a summary of mathematics he had been working on.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, how would you spend today? What if it was months from now? Years? Someday?

Published in: on April 10, 2006 at 7:14 am  Comments (3)