Dr. Johnson, I think, said that the prospect of being hanged “concentrates the mind.” When I faced open heart surgery, with a 3-4 percent chance of not surviving, it concentrated my mind. The odds were, of course, overwhelmingly on the side of living. But who would eat a substance or ride a conveyance that carried a 1 in 25 chance of not surviving. It possibility of death, with these odds, is not quite trivial. So, in the four days I had between the news and the procedure, I saw my lawyer, checked my will, finished projects that had imminent deadlines, told my kids that I loved them, and generally tried to put my life and myself in order.
There is a short story that begins, “No young man believes that he will ever die.” An overstatement, yes, but for the young person, prospective life seems to stretch out as far as the eye can see. Moving into mid-life, one thinks in decades — so many decades before retirement, hopefully some decades after that. At my age, and still having life and work projects very much alive, I count time in days, almost in minutes.
The most important thing we have is time. It can be spent well, or idly, or badly, or just wasted. Each minute, in a sense, sums up your life. That is true even for the times of relaxation, which itself restores oneself to other, more richly meaningful activities. You have to live each moment as if it were the meaning of your whole life. Death is the moment of assessment of a life and T. S. Eliot reminds us, “The moment of death is every moment.” The moment of ultimate reflection is every moment. A senior colleague once reported, “I feel I have frittered away my life.” Don’t fritter it away! Make the most of it — whatever your version of “most” is — down to the fleeting second!
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