I hadn’t talked to Brett in at least 10 years, but I used to know him pretty well. I can still hear his voice and see him laughing at the dinner table when we ate at his house. He was married to my sister until their divorce, so he was the father of my two nieces. I got along with him fine and he always treated me well.
I got a message from my sister Sunday to say that Brett had died unexpectedly of a heart attack about three weeks ago. It was a surprise because he was fairly young and had always been in great health, as far as I knew.
The news made me uncomfortable, simply because other people’s deaths remind me how fragile all life is — including my own.
I read a news article Saturday about new software that can analyze a person’s health and then use artificial intelligence to predict when he’s going to die. The software was said to predict a person’s death with “unsettling accuracy.”
That led me to wonder something. If some sort of software or divination could accurately predict the date and time of my death, how would it affect the way I live today?
When I’m honest with myself, I know that I live my life in denial of my eventual death. Don’t most of us do this? Is it even possible to focus clearly on the eventual end of life and still live a joyful and happy life today? Doesn’t our enjoyment of today depend on pretending that death will never come?
How would it affect you to know the day and hour of your death?
As I’ve thought about this question today, I find that my reactions confuse me. If I knew I were going to die in 40 years, I wouldn’t do anything differently than what I’m already doing.
If I knew I were going to die in 10 years, though, that would give me a sense of urgency. I would feel as though I couldn’t keep waiting to start living in some ways. I would feel as though I had to accelerate some of my plans. I would have to be focused and purposeful in finding the person who wanted to spend those 10 years with me. I would have to find someone available today.
But what if I knew I had only a year to live? Or what about a month? That would change everything.
If I knew I were going to die very soon, I wouldn’t waste my time on a lot of things which waste it now. Mostly, though, I would have no shame about saying and doing whatever I needed to say and do to connect with those I love.
I wouldn’t care how anybody else might react to what I had to say. I would be focused on saying and doing the things that needed to be said and done — before time ran out.
I wouldn’t have the desire to express hate for the people who have been in my way or have hurt me. I would want to ignore those people. Instead, I would want to see and talk with a very few people who mean something to me and tell them why I love them.
I wouldn’t worry about how someone might receive love or what might have to be done about it. Instead, I would have a burning need to look someone in the eyes and say, “I need to tell you why I love you. I need to tell you why I need you. I need you to know what I see in you and why.”
We tend to be so hesitant about acting on things which are emotionally risky. We worry about how other people feel. We worry about whether we’ll be hurt or rejected. We are so conscious of the ways in which we’ve been wounded before.
But if I knew I was going to die soon, I wouldn’t have time for any of that. I would have time only to express love and need and gratitude and desire.
The irony is that expressing all of that — freely and openly and without fear — would change whatever time I had left. And that leaves me wondering why I can’t live that way now? Why can’t I be brave enough and honest enough to ask for what I need and to express what I need to say?
I assume it’s because I think I’ll live forever.
Intellectually, I know I’ll die one day. Emotionally, I act as though I have forever to make my life what I need it to be.
I wonder what my ex-brother-in-law would have done differently a year ago if he had known he was going to die on March 15, 2019. Maybe he would have done nothing any differently, but I suspect he was just like me in this regard. I suspect he thought he would live forever. I suspect he thought he had plenty of time to take care of all that he needed to deal with.
Life in this culture is full of pretense and avoiding the things we ought to deal with, especially love, oddly enough. Maybe there’s no other way we know how to live. Maybe it’s been this way in every human culture through history.
All I’m certain about is that I would live my life very differently if I knew when death was coming, especially if the day of my death was soon.
My biggest realization about this is that I would do anything to pursue the love I need — not for some distant time in the future, but for today and tomorrow and every day. I need to find a way to live that way right now, even if I really think I’m going to live for decades to come.
On the day I day, all that’s going to matter is how well I’ve loved and how well I’ve allowed others to love me. None of the rest will make any difference.