A few years ago, I decided to take the plunge into the world of personal growth seminars. During my very first seminar and after several emotion-filled days of mind-blowing transformation and realizations, they figured it was time to hit us with the real whopper. Our facilitator told us to imagine these were the last few minutes of our lives. We could write a letter to whomever we wanted in those few minutes. The facilitator gave us a specific time limit (not very long, if I recall correctly). I began furiously writing to my loved ones, attempting to express all my love and gratitude in those few, brief moments. Then, before our time limit was up, somebody suddenly shut off all the lights. We were plunged into darkness. Gasps filled the air. I’m pretty sure my mouth hung open in dismay and righteous anger. I hadn’t finished writing! It wasn’t fair! After a dramatic pause, the facilitator whispered into the darkness: “You never know when your last minute will be up.” He then suggested to all of us that perhaps it’s time to start living like this could be our last day.
The experience was actually rather dramatic given the state I was in at the time, being raw with emotion and feeling quite vulnerable. It was a powerful way to drive home the point. Still, once I took a step back and pondered this age-old advice, I started to wonder exactly how to live every day as if it’s my last. The catch with this whole concept is, of course, that we generally don’t know for certain this will be the day we meet the Grim Reaper. But when we start to think about what we might do (or not do) if this were our last day, we have already inserted the assumption that we know today will be our “expiration date” (as my dad would put it). For me, I inevitably start to fantasize about eating pizza and ice cream all day long while being surrounded by close friends and family, all of whom also know I will die when the day is done. Because of this awareness, it is easy for all of us to express our undying love and gratitude for one another freely and without restraint. It’s a beautiful fantasy. Unfortunately, it also has no bearing on reality. This is because, in reality, I don’t know ahead of time that this will be my last day. So, of course, I generally choose to refrain from stuffing myself with pizza and ice cream all day long in an attempt to maintain my health, and I don’t call all my close friends and family daily to express my love for them, as it would become fairly meaningless to both me and them after only a few days.
Of course, whoever came up with this sage advice probably wasn’t implying that I eat pizza and profess my undying love for everybody on a daily basis. So I figured I probably needed to dig a little deeper. But some of the so-called deeper meanings that are often given also left me unsatisfied. One example is that by pondering the thought that we might die today, we can begin to sort out what is most important to us. For instance, since most of us would choose to spend our last minutes with friends and family instead of cleaning our house or doing laundry, that must mean friends and family are more important than cleaning and laundry. But for me, and I suspect a lot of people, that isn’t exactly a big revelation. Plus, I still feel like I need to clean the house and do laundry, regardless of how important my friends and family are to me.
So what I’ve finally come to realize is that I needed to look at this advice as just another pointer. What do I mean by that? I mean that this advice helps to point me toward a way of being — an experience — of what it means to live like it’s my last day. There are many other pointers out there that guide us to a similar experience or state of being, such as “live in the present moment” or “appreciate the preciousness of every second of your life.” When I started to inquire what it really means to live like it’s my last day, I simply couldn’t figure out with my logical mind how to practically implement this concept into my life. But when I eventually had an experience of what it’s like to live this way, I finally understood what it means. My point is that I don’t think this advice is meant as a some sort of directive to suddenly go out right now and live life as if this could be the day you meet your maker. Most of us would have no clue how to do that. I think, instead, it is meant as a launching pad of self-inquiry, which eventually leads us to an experience of what it really means to live every day with appreciation, knowing it could indeed be your last.