The Best Life Hack? Acknowledge Your Death
I often pass Harry on the trail that runs through our city. He’s always on his old ten-speed while I’m always walking. Our acknowledgment of each other is imperceptible even to me sometimes. Harry's been a member of our church for decades, but he’s the kind of guy who keeps to himself.
I knew something was up last week when I got to the trailhead and saw him sitting stationary on his bike, looking back up the trail where he’d passed me a few minutes earlier. Harry wanted to talk. For the next hour, he slowly pedaled while I tried to keep up.
On a recent morning, he woke up feeling dizzy which resulted in him calling a “doc in a box.” A couple of referrals later, he got an MRI, then a phone call asking him to come to the office so the neurologist could walk him through the results.
“All I remember the doctor saying is that I needed to get my affairs in order,” Harry explained as we tried to avoid the runners. The MRI revealed that there was plaque buildup on his cerebellum, typical of a 75-year-old with full-blown dementia.
The neurologist asked another doctor with more expertise in the cause of brain disease to talk with Harry about what might have led to his condition. The second doctor asked detailed questions about his diet. A little red meat, leafy vegetables, no alcohol, healthy weight. Those are better choices than I make. The questions kept coming.
“What do you snack on after dinner?” asked the doctor.
“Oh, I make microwave popcorn,” remembered Harry.
“Probably 4 or 5 times a week.”
“How long have you been doing that, Harry?”
“Probably 40 years.”
There were no more questions. The plaque buildup was likely due to a chemical in the microwave popcorn. When eaten frequently over long periods of time, it can be dangerous.
Harry was only 15 months from retiring when the doctors told him to expect a rapid decline into dementia.
The Brevity of Life
In 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman challenges us to think about the brevity of our life and wrestle with how we want to spend the weeks we have left. Coming to grips with our own mortality puts to death the illusion that we can do everything. Burkeman points out that the Latin word, decidere, means “to cut off.” Finite people must decide which of our interests we won’t pursue.
How often do you consider the brevity of your life? The Bible compares your life to a mist that exists only for a moment before it vanishes (James 4:14). Or to grass or flowers in a field. The wind blows over it, and it is gone (Psalm 103:15-16). Not only will we all die, but that day will come much sooner than we think. Yet, we do our best to push that thought out of our minds.
Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart."
The promise of contemporary time management is that you don’t have to decide which interests you will “cut off” because you can get everything done if you’re only more efficient. You’re one lifehack away from being enough.
Biblical wisdom offers time management for mortals. Your life is short, so choose wisely what you will and won’t do.
Living Life Backwards
I grew up going to chain restaurants that offered children’s menus with games on the back. Some had better games than others, but every child’s menu had a maze that challenged you to draw a line from the start to the center without running into a dead end.
Once, my grandmother, probably exasperated with me asking for help, showed me how to cheat the system. Start at the end of the maze and work back toward the beginning. If you start at the beginning, there are many potential dead ends. But if you start at the end, there is only one way to the beginning.
What if we took my grandmother’s wisdom and started at the end of our life and then worked backward to where we are now? Instead of living life forwards not knowing where we are going or what we are accomplishing, what if we decided what we wanted to be true of us when we died and then lived each day in light of that goal?
Living your life forward is like building a house without a blueprint. You can do it, but you’re going to make a lot of costly mistakes, and it’s not going to end up as you envisioned.
You won’t know what to “cut off” if you don’t know what you want. You won’t know what you want until you come to terms with your personal finitude.
Job 14:5 tells us, “You have decided the length of our lives. You know how many months we will live, and we are not given a minute longer.”
We know that all people die, but we live as if we are unsure that we’ll die. We know all people die but somehow, we aren’t prepared for death. When the Vicomte de Turenne was mortally wounded at the Battle of Salzbach in 1675, he wistfully said, “I did not mean to be killed today.” None of us do.
Kirk Cousins, the quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, has a sculpture outside his house with an odd purpose: it’s intended to remind him that he’s going to die and shape how he’s going to live the days he has left.
Planning to live 90 years, the quarterback has a jar of 720 stones (one for each month he intends to live) at his home. Each month, he takes a stone out of the jar and carries it with him. He once told ESPN, “Every month [he’s] going to take out a stone, put it in [his] pocket, and think: ‘Once this month is over, this is gone. You can’t get it back; it’s gone for good.’”
Cousins says this practice reminds him that his days on this earth are limited.
Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
If I know my money is limited, I spend it more wisely. In the same way, when I’m aware that my days are numbered, I spend my time more wisely.
Engaged couples count down the days to their wedding. Expectant mothers count down the days until their due date. And wise people count down the days until they will see Jesus and give an account of their life to God.
What’s the wise way to spend our time? That’s between you and God. But ultimately, time management for mortals insists that you won’t be able to answer that question until you realize you don’t have as much left as you think.
Want to hear more about the lie of time management and the false promise of increased efficiency? Listen to my recent discussion with Oliver Burkeman on Truth Over Tribe.
Posted by Keith Simon