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.
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?
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?
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.
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.