Quantcast

«

»

Aug 11 2008

Living Each Day As If It Were Your Last

Homer Simpson
There's an episode of the Simpsons — I can't remember which one right now — where Homer is reading some book on how to be a successful go-getter, and he sees this piece of advice: "Live each day as if it were your last." And in the next scene, he's sitting on the curb, sobbing heartbrokenly, and crying out, "I don't want to die."

I'm sure you've all heard this at some point. "Live each day as if it were your last." It's the sort of folk wisdom that it's easy to nod along with sagely, without really thinking about it.

And it's the sort of folk wisdom that, once you start thinking about it, doesn't actually make any sense at all.

Drug_cocktail
Back in the early '90s, when the AIDS cocktail first came out and people with AIDS suddenly started having a decent life expectancy, a lot of those people were suddenly stuck with a happy but not inconsiderable problem: They had run up enormous credit card debt. In some cases, they had even quit their jobs. They had been living on the assumption that they weren't going to live more than a few months or a year… and if you're not going to live for more than a few months or a year, then why the hell not run up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card bills? So when it turned out that this wasn't the case, and that they were probably going to live for a while, they were kind of screwed.

They had been living each day as if it were their last. And while that made a certain amount of sense when they only had a few months to live, once they had a reasonable life expectancy, it turned out to be a really bad idea.

I guess the idea behind this bit of folk wisdom is that you're supposed to do the things that matter to you now, and not wait until it's too late. Okay. Fine. Except — what if the things that matter to you are things that take time and patience and discipline to accomplish? What if the things that matter to you are getting a book contract, or a nursing degree? Making sure your kids can go to college? Deciphering the genome of the coelacanth? Winning a gold medal in badminton? Building a scale model of the Battleship Potemkin in your garage?

Vacuum cleaner
Let me put it this way. If I were to live each day as if it were my last, I wouldn't have spent three hours this weekend cleaning the house. I wouldn't have gotten up at 8 a.m. on Saturday to take the cat to the vet. I wouldn't try to get book contracts, or drum up publicity for the books I've already written. I sure as well wouldn't go to work: I like my job reasonably well, but not enough to spend the last day of my life there.

And yet, doing these things is what makes the things that matter to me possible. I love having a home with Ingrid, a home that's a welcoming place to share with each other and with our friends and family. I love our cats. I love writing, and getting my writing out into the world to be read. And I love having food and clothes and a roof over my head… and I'm grateful that I can do it by working with a bunch of hippie punk rock anarchist book freaks.

The ability to make plans and sacrifices, to set aside what we want right this second in order to get something we want even more later on, is crucial to human happiness. People who can't do it tend not to be very happy.

You might think that, as an atheist, the "live every day as if it were your last" philosophy would be appealing. After all, in the atheist/ humanist world view, this is our only life. There's no pie in the sky when we die — so why not just live for the moment?

Credit cards
But that's not how I see it at all. And I don't know any other atheists or humanists who see it that way, either. In a humanist philosophy, this life is the only life we have — so we have to make the most of it. All of it. Not just this day, but all the days we have. Life is short and limited, and we should make the most of it… but that doesn't mean getting twelve credits cards and running off to Amsterdam. It means doing the things that give our lives the most meaning, the things that connect us with the world and make our mark on it. Some of which involve patience, and sacrifice, and deferred gratification.

Besides, being a humanist means being a realist. And unless you're very old or very sick or happen to be hanging off a cliff by your fingertips right at this very moment (in which case, what are you doing surfing the Internet?), the reality is that you probably have a little while yet to live. Yes, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow and die, and that's a reality too. But living as if that were true, instead of just a slim possibility, is out of touch with reality.

Now, if you're talking about life being precious and not wasting it on trivia, then I'm with you. It's something I pay more and more attention to as I get older. Life is short, and I could get hit by a bus tomorrow: do I really want to spend today watching "Law & Order" reruns?

And if you're talking about living in the moment, as opposed to living for the moment, then I'm totally with you. It's one of the great challenges of my life, actually: learning to get the hell out of my head and actually experience my life, instead of analyzing it to death all the time.

Fresh_vegetables
But I don't think that's about cashing in your life savings and buying a hot air balloon, or whatever. In fact, I think it's a much more interesting challenge to be in the moment and fully experience your life, not when you're going up in a hot air balloon for the first time, but when you're making dinner, or walking to work, or rubbing the cat's belly. Being fully present in the ordinary dailiness of your life — the things that ultimately give it meaning even though they're not that special or exciting — that's the cool stuff.

Yes, I want this day to be a day that matters, a day that I've lived fully. But chances are I'm going to be alive in a couple years. And I want that day two years from now to be a day that I live fully as well.

I don't want to live this day as if it were my last.

I want to live this life as if it were my last.

16 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Michael

    Reminds me of a story I read a few months ago where a man was misdiagnosed as having a terminal disease so he quit his job and spent his entire life savings on eating at expensive restaurants, having a good time etc. Then turns out he wasn’t going to die at all, so he sued the doctor because he was, like the earlier example, screwed.

  2. 2
    Aaron Brown

    There’s an episode of the Simpsons — I can’t
    remember which one right now

    I just saw that one earlier this week, but I can’t
    remember either. (annoyed grunt)!

    I don’t want to live this day as if it were
    my last.
    I want to live this life as if it were my last.

    This is great.
    Paul Graham
    on the same subject:

    But the fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given
    moment, float about in the Carribbean, or have sex, or eat
    some delicious food, than work on hard problems. The rule
    about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time.
    It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second,
    but what will make you happiest over some longer period,
    like a week or a month.
    Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while
    you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay
    happy, you have to do something.

  3. 3
    Daniel

    The fact that you expect to wake up tomorrow (and I mean the metaphorical tomorrow) is disheartening. As if you were entitled to it. Anything you put aside for tomorrow has a surcharge; you will lose in the end.
    Then again, the fact that people exhibit solipsistic, and aggressively hedonistic, behavior because they think they’re going to die is even worse.

  4. 4
    Kevin

    There’s a line from the movie ‘The Namesake’ that I liked: “Every day is a gift”. This works better for me than ‘live each day as if it were your last’, more of a gentle reminder to think about what’s important in life.

  5. 5
    arensb

    I remember reading an essay about how a lot of the stuff in the gospels only makes sense if Jesus really thought the world was going to end tomorrow: “turn the other cheek”, “love your enemies”, “take no thought for the morrow”, and so forth.
    Of course, since it’s been nearly 2000 years and counting, a lot of people have figured out that maybe Jesus isn’t actually coming back tomorrow, so the definition of “take no thought for the morrow” has been broadened to encompass “get a 401(k) for your retirement years”.

  6. 6
    Eshu

    “Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones.” – Seneca

  7. 7
    Rystefn

    I don’t think many people take the phrase in a literal sense. Hell, even I’m not that brand of crazy. It’s the essence of the sentiment that’s important. If you were hit by a bus tomorrow, how would you feel about today? That’s the crux. If a rock fell out of the sky and landed on your head right now, what would your last words have been? I know I’d prefer they were “I love you” rather than “Shut the Hell up and leave me alone!” If you asphyxiated in the night, would you have spent your last day laughing or crying?
    It’s not a reminder to the people who live happy lives that they could sell everything they own and go San Marino for a weekend of drinking and partying, it’s a reminder to the people who hate their lives that they could go to the park and lie in the grass this afternoon.
    I suppose you could say “Live every day like it MIGHT BE your last,” but that really doesn’t flow well, and even if it did, most people would shrug off that “might be” the same way they already are.
    It’s a phrase I use a great deal, and I don’t think I’ve ever met the hypothetical person who actually takes it too far. Maybe if I do, I’ll start saying something different.
    Nearly everyone I’ve ever met lives like they’ll live forever, like there’s time without limit to do the things they want to do, to correct mistakes, to share with their loved ones. They are wrong. When the universe shows them how wrong they are, they act like there’s something wrong with the universe, then get back to the business of living forever.
    Those are the people I’m talking to when I say it, and I say it again: Live every like it’s your last because one day it will be.

  8. 8
    Jason Failes

    Daniel: “The fact that you expect to wake up tomorrow (and I mean the metaphorical tomorrow) is disheartening. As if you were entitled to it.”
    I’m not sure what you are saying, either why it is disheartening or what the difference is between a metaphoric tomorrow and a literal next day, so forgive me if I respond to something you didn’t mean to say….but it seems very reasonable to make tentative assumptions about living through to the next day based on a general knowledge of human lifespans and mortality factors, as well as a particular knowledge of your own health status. This would, of course, vary by your own age, which is why we so much reckless hedonism amongst octogenarians…
    Rystefn: “Nearly everyone I’ve ever met lives like they’ll live forever, like there’s time without limit to do the things they want to do, to correct mistakes, to share with their loved ones. They are wrong.”
    What if Ray Kurzweil is correct?
    http://www.amazon.com/Fantastic-Voyage-Live-Enough-Forever/dp/1579549543
    That would take Greta’s philosophy to its extreme: Live everyday as if you were going to live forever. That would involve some very, very long term planning, plus a higher incentive to be very pleasant socially, as you could still be dealing with many of the same people 2 or 3 centuries later…

  9. 9
    Alexis Kauffmann

    This post reminds the story of Jorginho Guinle, who inherited, a fortune back in the 1930′s, when he was very young. He decided to live each day as if it were his last. He calculated that, if he lived until he was 80, he could spend X thousand dollars a year from his heritage, so he would never had to work throughout his life.
    So he began his “professional playboy”. Parties, the most gorgeous women of his time, travels, always on the news.
    He just happened to live until he was 88 y.o…
    :-p
    You can find an article about him at http://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Guinle, unfortunately in portuguese only.
    ks’s

  10. 10
    Rob

    No way, Picard is never wrong!
    “Seize the moment, Marabor. Live Now. Now is always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”
    - Jean Luc Picard

  11. 11
    the chaplain

    Great post. I agree with your outlook, live this life like it’s my last one, because, indeed, it is.

  12. 12
    Tommykey

    Greta, a fuller version of that quote comes from the movie (and play) Breaker Morant, where the main character Harry Morant says “Live every day as if it were going to be your last, for one day you’re sure to be right.”
    Michael, that story you mentioned was in an episode of House.

  13. 13
    Ebonmuse

    I don’t want to live this day as if it were my last.
    I want to live this life as if it were my last.

    That gave me goose bumps. What a beautiful phrasing!
    This post does a great job of distilling the genuine wisdom from a rather silly proverb. Of course, it would be foolish to live as if today really were your last day alive; setting goals and making long-term plans is a strongly advisable course of action. But we should keep those goals in mind, and be sure that we’re working towards them. I like the way Rystefn put it upthread: many people act as if they’ll live forever, spending time on trivial things that, in the long run, really won’t matter. Even if we have much more than one day to live, our time is still precious for all that.
    On topic, here’s a random funny from the recesses of the Internet:

    “On my death bed, I intend to say, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’ I think it would be cool to be the first person to ever do that.”

  14. 14
    The Butterfly Temptress

    For a very long time, while I worked as a nurse, that was my motto. I tried really hard but the responsible side won out. I paid my bills, avoided credit cards, and lived like an adult.
    Today, I am approximately one month past my supposed date of expiration. I wish I had gotten those twelve credit cards and gone to Paris. I wish I had finished my book. Not doing so has left me feeling desperate and discontent.
    Still, I know that if next months clinical trials work, I will have years to do the things I am wishing I had done sooner. So maybe next year at this time I will be glad for my OCD and my anal retentive tendencies. Then again, maybe I will be worm food. Either way, I will be gone, so it won’t matter.
    So instead of living each day as if it were my last, I am living each day as if it were a gift. A gift that I cherish and take care of, a gift that I try to hold on to for as long as possible.

  15. 15
    Rob

    Another take on this:
    “Work as if you were to live a hundred years. Pray as if you were to die tomorrow.”
    Benjamin Franklin.
    Curiously enough, his atheism doesn’t show much there :-)
    Another, from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes
    /authors/b/benjamin_franklin.html
    (Gotta love Google)
    “A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things. There will be sleeping enough in the grave.”

  16. 16
    Brad

    I would say live your life as if you almost died yesterday.

Leave a Reply