The Imminence of Death

death living life to the fullest randy pausch the last lecture warrior spirit

This outlook would sometimes depress me, but it also inspired me to make the most of each day and every minute. I have a tendency to get antsy when I’m not filling my time and I cannot tolerate spending big chunks of my life doing things that do not fulfill me.

Interestingly, I never made the connection between this outlook and that of terminally ill (but emotionally healthy) people. But I’ve been listening to The Last Lecture and keep finding sentiments that match my own.

In case you haven’t heard of this book, it is an expanded version of a lecture given by a Carnegie Mellon professor who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Professors are sometimes asked to give lectures as if it was their last chance to convey whatever truths they could, and this guy, Randy Pausch, actually found himself in the situation of facing his own death. His lecture is very popular and can be found here. The book is simply an expansion of the topics he covered.

The lecture itself was titled, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” and Randy made a point of avoiding the topics of death and more personal matters associated with his impending passing. The book is a bit different. In it, he allows himself the liberty of musing on all aspects of life, especially how the expectation of death makes him value the time he has left.

For Time or Money

I found my own values reflected in his semi-macabre optimism. Despite the significance of the realization, valuing your time from day to day manifests in small, mundane ways.

In one example, Randy mentions an accident at the supermarket where he was charged twice for his purchase. He thought briefly about talking to the manager to get the charge returned to his credit card, but decided it wasn’t worth his time, which was limited. The 15 minutes he saved, as well as the frustration, were worth more than the $16.55.

Now, I don’t know about you, but most people I know would put themselves through a lot of trouble to recoup their loss.

I used to be inclined to Randy’s solution, but the appeals of my thrifty father have lately instilled guilt at being so carefree financially. Recently, I have been more stingy about my money (but apparently not my time), in the belief that it the responsible thing to do.

The truth is, I don’t like wasting time for the sake of saving a few dollars. Hearing Randy’s Pausch’s stance on the issue is really vindicating to me, and suggests that perhaps my old approach of letting things go and accepting losses might actually be the more responsible approach.

I do practice financial responsibility, however, and try to avoid spending unnecessarily, saving when I can, and making a steady income. But once money is lost, I’d rather just move on if I can afford to.

Fear Not Death, but a Life Frittered Away and Put Off

I do not think that I am afraid to die, though I’ve never been able to put that to the test. I have found myself in very dangerous situations that could have ended in my death, but the danger did not deter me. Instead, I have always been afraid of wasting time and of not living life to the fullest.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that you can’t live your life with such urgency all the time. You have to be able to relax, sit back, take a deep breath, and just stare at the sky. Sleep is a necessary part of experiencing life to the fullest, even though it requires us to basically shut out experience for 8 or more hours.

The hard part is finding a balance between the mundane, day to day experience that make life livable, and the grand adventures that make life worth living. You need to do our laundry to enjoy your home, but obsessing over tidiness will only distress you and keep you from doing the things that tidiness allows.

Enjoying life is as much about using your time wisely as it is about using your passion wisely. Don’t waste energy on nit-picky details. Learn to let little things go. To borrow from The Last Lecture, Randy and his wife had agreed not to pick on each other’s annoying habits; he asks, “Did we really want to spend our last days together arguing about me cleaning up my clothes?” Obviously, the answer is no.

Another way he put it is, “It doesn’t matter how well you polish the underside of the banister.”

Save your passion for things that matter. Get angry and frustrated about real issues, like human suffering and ignorance. Put your energy into those things, and you’ll probably be much happier.

The last lesson I have taken from Randy Pausch so far is to take your dreams seriously. You only get one life in which to live them out, and that can end abruptly. They are more important than paying your taxes, attending boring meetings, or keeping up on the latest gossip columns.

My conception of the Warrior Spirit certainly allows for this view of life and death. Warriors traditionally were the ones putting their lives on the line, and were called upon by their tribe, family, or country whenever the task at hand might pose life-threatening danger. They were always living on the edge, and never knew when a situation might prove beyond their skills. Thus, I would think that many of them would try to live in the moment and focus on the important things in life. It's a romantic notion of historical warriors, but the Warrior Spirit is an ideal anyway.

For my part, I am going to stop trying to bury my awareness of the imminence of death and instead embrace it as a motivation for living life as vibrantly and intensely as possible. Reading The Last Lecture has made me see it more as a gift than the curse I thought it was for so many years.

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