A friend I’ve known for nearly a quarter of my life is lying in a hospital bed pondering death.
As I write this, if not sleeping, my friend is contemplating assisted suicide.
I have been thinking about some of the discussions I’ve had with this person over the years. Chats about what we consider a good life and how we approach time.
Many faith traditions are pretty emphatic that human beings have eternal souls. That earth life is temporary. That it’s really securing a place in the afterlife that counts. In some cases this is said as a comfort (as in the case of the death of a loved one) and in other cases it is presented as a cautionary tale (as in the damning consequences of living an “immoral” life). Whether spoken from the position of compassion or motivation, it seems to me the intended result is that the hearer thinks in terms of eternity. That the hearer becomes more eternally minded.
I don’t doubt that we are eternal, but what about when some of my preconceptions that go along with this supposition are off?
Conversations with my friend, who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, have challenged me to think about some of the ways my own ideas about eternity have negatively impacted the way I view time.
A verse in Psalm 90 instructs us to be aware of time—one might even say to be presently minded: “Teach us to number our days so that we may truly live and achieve wisdom” (Psalm 90:12 The Voice).
Here’s what I get out of it: If I want to be wise, I need to recognize that my life on earth will eventually run out. When I think about people who are keenly aware of this, often as a result of a terminal illness, I am challenged to examine the way I often spend my days as though they will never come to an end.
I am forced to consider how much more intentional I would probably be if I realized my days—or hours—were not eternal. When I ponder on it, I am gobsmacked at the implications. First, my sudden desire is to express love to people who have contributed rich meaning to my life. And second, I experience motivation to finally get to things I have always intended to do. Whether that is cleaning up old—and now probably utterly meaningless—grievances or doing some gnarly thing I wanted to but just never quite got around to doing because I was “busy.”
When I think about my limited time, I become more aware of what is actually meaningful.
I have read that people who hear from the doctor that they have a terminal disease sometimes enjoy their last good days with increasingly more value and purpose than the rest of us. Is this because suddenly time is … fixed? Their days are numbered. And now they realise just exactly what is really important. And usually it’s never washing dishes or mowing the lawn or home improvement.
Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture was composed after the author was given a terminal prognosis. He came up with some phenomenal stuff about what it meant to know that he had just one last lecture. What would he put in? What was actually valuable? These things became easier to answer when he was putting it together, knowing that his remaining time was fixed.
When I contemplate the contrast between how he approached his days as compared to how I often approach mine, I am accosted with problems of focusing on eternity.
It seems to me that being eternally minded can be horrifically dangerous. When I am eternally minded,
—I am prone to put off what I might otherwise do now. After all, “I have time.”
—I view time as a river that never stops instead of a pond with a fixed amount of water.
—I see opportunities—especially dealing with people—as things I can get to “at some point,” which generally means at worst never or at best later than is preferable.
When I visit with my friend, I am also humbled by the gratitude this person walks in. Challenged to value what has already been lived and to treasure the past for what it is and not think, Well, we will see what tomorrow brings.
When I think about my eternal mindedness, I see that I consider life as more fluid. For people like my friend who have numbered their days (and don’t believe in an afterlife), fixed things demand a certain now kind of thinking.
I am greatly troubled about my friend. It grieves me horribly that our conversations are going to come to an end at some point. I don’t want them to. I desperately want my friend to live. That said, I can’t help but acknowledge that my friend’s perspectives are having a deep impact on how I am viewing my own days.