« The Problem that Identity Politics Never Addressed | Main | How Can We Talk To Each Other? »

Living As If You Will Live Forever

I’m 73 years old. One of these days I’m going to receive news from my doctor that I have incurable cancer, or I’m going to fall over from a stroke, or develop excruciating chest pains and have a heart attack. I already had one close call along these lines (a diagnosis that proved incorrect instead of fatal). I won’t live forever. Nobody does.

Conventional wisdom says that we should “live each day as if it is our last.” Similar sayings are attributed to as wide a range of people as Marcus Aurelius, Mohammed Ali and Steve Jobs. The idea is that we have no idea when we might die and we should not wait until it’s too late to do those things we want to do. Seize the day, do it now, etc. etc.

Like a lot of people, I’m often bothered by a nagging sense of urgency. Once I begin a project I want to finish it before some further development intrudes to make it less valuable or meaningful. When I’m doing one thing my mind often flits to what I’m not doing. It’s as if valuable time is slipping by and I may not be using mine in the most productive or satisfying way. Every day that goes by and I haven’t accomplished something, I question my motivation and direction. I often do several things at once: watch TV while reading a book, read more than one book at one time, write and read, garden while composing a story in my head, drive and listen to the news on the radio, check my cell phone while doing almost any other activity.

But what if I had unlimited time? What if there was time for me to do everything I wanted to do? What if I was going to live forever?

I won’t.

But what if I lived my life as if I were going to live forever? What would that mean? It wouldn’t mean putting off things that either my health or my livelihood or others’ welfare depended upon. I don’t want to live forever in pain, in destitution, or in guilt. I don’t want anyone else to suffer. So I’m talking about having unlimited time to do things that are done for pleasure. I think that’s what those people who said to live each day as if it were your last were talking about also. They didn’t mean going out and spending all your money so those who depended on you were bereft. They didn’t mean quitting your job or not paying your electric bill. They meant do the things you want to do right now.

By saying to live my life as if it will go on forever, I mean do the things I want to do whenever I feel like doing them and whenever I’ve finished doing the last thing I wanted to do… or even later. There’s no need to rush into the next thing. And when I do something, really focus on it, not on what else I could be doing, or what I’m missing out on. There will be time for those other things.  Time is on my side. After all, I’m going to live forever.

But I’m not going to live forever. I’m probably not going to die tomorrow either, but at least that’s possible. Living forever is not possible, so how can denying reality be rewarding? Well, many people find religion rewarding, and they believe in the power of prayer and in miracles and life after death. Alignment with reality is not the ultimate test of whether a point of view is rewarding or not, so let’s look at some of the perks for acting as if I’m going to live forever.

One positive is that I’m not going to worry about dying. This is a little tricky, since I know that I’m just assuming a point of view and I don’t really believe that I’m going to live forever. Remember, I’m living my life as if I’m going to live forever, despite knowing that I’m not. So I could still worry about dying. But it won’t be hovering above all of my hopes and plans, able to sour each of them by its constant presence, because remember, I’m living my life as if I’m going to live forever. And if, while blithely living as though I will keep on living, I am struck down at some point, I’m not going to regret having not done something after I’m dead. Only people who are alive have regrets.

My intellectual mentor with regard to death is Epicurus. He believed that death is the end of sensation, the end of experience and is followed by nothing. He didn’t fear death, as he reasoned that it made no sense to fear nothingness, it being something you didn’t experience. His philosophy was to not think about death. He didn’t propose a denial of death, and some of his followers even subscribed to the idea of thinking of every day as your last. But Epicurus was more likely to say one should think about what he was doing in the immediate present, and not what would happen after he died, since that would not be part of his experience.

If I live my life as if I’ll live forever, I still have priorities with regard to insuring that I and those I care about are safe, secure and able to find happiness themselves. My concern for the welfare of the world is probably heightened, since I will continue to live in the midst of whatever conditions I help to create. For someone who plans to live forever, a long range perspective makes sense, although perhaps a sense of urgency, less so.

With regard to my own experiences of happiness, I don’t need to prioritize them, as I will have time to experience them all. One experience of happiness does not compete with another. I can take whatever comes easiest  or I can wait (remember, I can wait forever) and gather together my resources to enjoy something that is not so easy to experience.  I needn’t distress over whether I made the right choice, since eventually I can experience both choices. Should I save up money to visit Europe in a year or two or should I drive to the Grand Canyon next month? I will have time to do both. Should I indulge  my interest in poetry or should I catch up on what is happening in modern science before I fall too far behind the field to understand what is being done? I have time to do both. Perhaps I can’t do both at once, but catching far enough up on science to maintain my understanding will not eliminate my chance to throw myself into reading poetry in the future.

And again, if my leisurely trek through life is interrupted by death, I won’t have any experience of having missed something, because, being dead, I won’t have any experience.

Many of us will know we are dying long before the event occurs. It may be hard to live our lives as if we were going to live forever if we have been given a date at which we will die. On the other hand, we’re just more sure of our date of death than are other people. None of us is going to actually do everything we hope to do before we die. Trying to decide what is on our “bucket list” in the waning days of our lives, when our resources are apt to be so depleted that we can’t enjoy most of the things on that list anyway, seems self-defeating. Why not just do those things that we enjoy that are easiest to do and assume we’ll do some of the rest if we live longer than expected. Fill our thoughts with what we are doing not with what we are not able to do. And if we can't enjoy very much of anything because we are too weak or too much in pain, then we can accept that we lived our lives as if we had plenty of time to do everything, and we were wrong, but at least we enjoyed what we were doing, as completely as possible, at the time. That’s better than deciding that we should do the most important thing no matter what and then because of our health, or our limited resources or just chance, failing to do it, seeing our life as a failure instead of the interrupted success that it was.

I’m going to try to live my life as if it will go on forever. I’m going to slow down. I’m not going to regret not doing anything right now, as I can always do it later. I’m going to  enjoy the low-hanging pleasures when they present themselves without fearing that I am letting that enjoyment derail my plan to enjoy something that is more difficult to achieve. No pleasure competes with another. There is time for me to do everything. And mostly I will focus all my attention on what I am doing right now, in the immediate present, since I will always have time to focus on the other things I could be doing, later.


Reader Comments (3)

Excellent read! Some cultures would even call this last statement the hallmark of enlightenment!

November 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Culy

Whew! I love it when you turn everything around. If you want to read the antithesis of this work, just go to one of the most narcissistic and self-indulgent of wedding vows that I wrote eleven years ago when I was 60. It's all about "hurrying-up". I may have to rethink my approach to this stage of life after reading this very philosophical essay. http://hubpages.com/literature/To-Mike-My-Wedding-Poem-to-You

I hate to go all humorous on you, Casey, but the link below is actually where my mind went after reading your piece. When you think about it, it really is at the core of what you're saying. It's one my favorite all time movie scenes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9mf3Bypyk8 See if you think it's relevant.


November 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

Billie: Your wedding vows are beautiful and inspiring. They don't contrast with this at all, really. Bill Murray is, as always, priceless. And he speaks what may be a truth - or may be nonsense. One difficulty with having a philosophical side is that it's never easy to tell the difference between truth and nonsense.

November 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>