The end of a fireworks display is always the most exciting. It’s loud, colorful, and frenzied with big, bold activity. That’s how we imagine our lives to look like when we answer the question: What would you do if you only had six months to live?
We’d go down swinging in a spectacular grand finale, of course.
Tour Paris. Take a cruise. Visit the pyramids of Egypt. Climb Mount Everest. Paddle down the Amazon. Run a marathon. Go skydiving.
When asked what we’d do if we only had six months to live, why do we so often resort to the grandiose, sexy, self-indulgent activities ripped from a full-color glossy brochure? Are those the things we really want to do, or are those the things we just THINK we should want to do? Do we really believe that a well-lived life must incorporate as many of these extreme adventures as possible?
The question fascinates me. I suppose the phenomenon could be interpreted as a very “American” thing. We tend to be obsessed with bigger, better, and more. More elaborate. More expensive. More exciting. More extreme. The best-selling book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die appears to set the bar at what a well-lived life should look like.
There are two problems as I see it, however.
The first is that, even as exhaustive as that book (and others like it) may be, I’m certain there are a number of things left out. Someone could theoretically do every single thing listed in that book (which would probably actually take several lifetimes to accomplish), and there’d still be a thousand other things that could be added. This world is simply too big and opportunities are too numerous for one person to experience all of it. So you get to the end of your life and inevitably feel like you missed something.
The other problem is that these grandiose books of bucket lists condition us to think that some experiences are more valuable and enriching than others. No doubt that taking in a sunset at the Grand Canyon is probably a better use of time than watching reruns of Melrose Place, but which of these experiences is more valuable: reeling in swordfish during an exciting chartered open sea expedition, or spending a sleepy afternoon on a quiet pond fishing with your granddaughter?
You may argue that both experiences offer equal value for different reasons, but there’s certainly no question about which one is sexier and more likely to end up on the “1,001 Things You Should Do Or Your Life Was a Complete Waste of Time” list.
Faced with only having six months left to live, we imagine going out in a breathtaking grand finale of epic proportions. That’s how we’d like things to go. That’s how it works in the movies.
But not so much in real life.
In real life, a heart attack gets you before you even knew what hit you. In real life, by the time you get the real “you’ve got six months left to live” speech, you’re too weak and sick to muster much more than getting down the hall to the bathroom. In real life, you wake up one day when you’re ninety and wonder where the hell the time went.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for the genre of books I’ve been talking about. I love how they encourage us to awaken from our microwaved, air-conditioned, cruise-controlled lifestyle and DO something with our lives. I appreciate how they offer ideas we may have never considered.
But rather than focus on making sure my last days resemble a nighttime Disney World extravaganza, I’m more interested in focusing on what my regular days look like. Am I happy to get out of bed, excited about what the day holds? Does my work make a difference in the world? Does it make a difference to me? Do I get to spend a little of each day with the people I love, even if it’s just a simple meal together, or a walk around the neighborhood, or a dance party in my living room? Did I make time for a short prayer with my God, a slice of a good book, or a meaningful conversation with my wife?
Days like that might seem too pedestrian — boring even — to our bigger, better, and more sensibilities. The “Bucket List” books would have me believe that I didn’t do enough. But the truth is, happiness is a lifetime filled with days that look like that, days consistently marked by deep, happy contentment and sprinkled with simple bits of joy on top.
The best way to die with no regrets — be it six months or sixty years from now — is to make sure that most of your days are infused with those simple measures of happiness and fulfillment. By my estimation, it’s better to create a life that’s filled with days that look like that than to hope for a brilliant grand finale that makes up for the thousands of days spent in quiet desperation, toiling in a job you didn’t like, spending time with people you didn’t care about, and caring about things that didn’t matter.
Life is too precious to gamble on the chance that you’ll get one last shot to squeeze in the living you missed out on. The reality is, the brilliant fireworks grande finale is probably not in the cards for you. Or me.
That’s okay. Just make sure you’re intentionally creating a life that is consistently breathtaking, even if in small ways. Because jumping out of a plane or scaling Mount Everest during your last days won’t make up for a lifetime of settling.
Like this article? Cool. Make sure you’re subscribing to our RSS feed so you won’t miss out on any future installments of similarly inspiring prose. And stuff.