I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him–only to bring him to life.Innocent Smith in Manalive, GK Chesterton
The priest at Mass the other day posed the question: if it was possible to know, would you want to know when you would die?
As a melancholic, death is never too far from my mind and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While I don’t have strong feelings about the question one way or the other, I was thinking of some of the benefits of knowing when I would die, even if there is wisdom in not knowing. Sometimes, when death is clearly imminent, it compels us to truly embrace living. When our time is definitively short, we can move from passive existence to passionately experiencing life.
Is that type of wholehearted living reserved only for those who know death is at their door? Could I do that now? If people are able to live more when death comes close, could we just do now what we would do if we knew?
It made me consider how I would change my life if I knew the times of other events. Besides death, there are many other things that seem to be unknown yet shape how I live. For example, if I knew within the next year I would meet someone I would marry, would it change how I live? I believed that I would. What if it was five years, would that change how I live now? Yes, it would. What if I knew I would never get married? Again, yes.
And then I asked myself an important question: why?
Why would knowing if I had five or twenty-five years left to live so dramatically change how I would live? Why would knowing I would get married in two years or never dramatically change how I live? Why would knowing if I would teach for only the next year or for the next decade change how I live?
All of the answers to the why seemed insufficient.
Like when I thought of never getting married, I thought about how I would delve super deeply into community. Why not do that now? Or if I knew I would live to be eighty, I imagined myself being very adventurous. Why not do that now? If I knew this was my last summer outside of a “normal” year-round job, I dreamed of soaking up every sun-kissed day of freedom with intentionality. Why not do that now?
The truth is that often I (and perhaps we) find myself waiting for something uncertain and indescribable. We need something to jar us awake. Something to breath new life into us and remind us that life is happening now, not at some distant time when we have the thing we want or when we finally realize that our time is finite. Death being a catalyst for life reminds me of a Flannery O’Connor quote that comes at the end of A Good Man Is Hard to Find.
‘She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor
I don’t want this to be said of my life.
I don’t want this to be the lived reality of my life.
I don’t want to wait anymore to live or to pursue dreams that I keep pushing away in anticipation of a later time. I don’t know how many years I have left or if I’ll get married or what job I’ll have in five years. But I do have right now and how sad it would be to die with a longer list of if onlys than of experiences that were entirely within my grasp.
If only, I would reach.
Photo: Grand Canyon view (by me)