A Week to Live
“Lama, what’s ‘impermanence’?”
“You see these people? All of us…and all the people alive in the world today—
A hundred years from now we’ll all be dead. That is impermanence.”
(from the motion picture “Little Buddha”)
“Limited” – Carl Sandburg
I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go
fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust
and all the men and women laughing in the diners and sleepers
shall pass to ashes.)
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going
and he answers: “Omaha.”
It’s really just a matter of perspective—how limited, narrow and short-sighted our view is versus how broad and inclusive and far-sighted it is.
It’s impossible to truly love this life and to truly love another and live that relationship as something alive and deeply meaningful if we don’t have perspective, if we’re one of the many who live their lives as if they’ll never die, as if death will never touch them or tap them on the shoulder.
To truly live, and more importantly, to truly love—to live and love as if we’re dying— requires that we take the blinders off, that we courageously begin removing the scales from our eyes, that we become more courageous and curious about facing ourselves and our fears and editing out all the denial, reactivity, self-deception, control issues, discursive thought-patterns, self-defeating and self-sabotaging reactions, and the massive sense of self-importance and pride and entitlement (ego)—that massive chip that resides right there squarely on our shoulder—that gets us stuck in life and stubbornly, obstinately keeps us there.
To love truly means to love as if we’re dying, which means to love with no armor, no defenses, no denial. And so instead of continuing to live on auto-pilot and is life goes on forever and continuing to avoid facing ourselves, we start becoming courageous and curious enough to begin working through all of the dross and manure and start living like a real warrior.
“Calm Before the Storm” – Mary Baine Campbell
Between the Brattle and the bookstore
A hundred yards of wet brick pavement
Fancy with yellow leaves: I wore
A red jacket, carried a red umbrella
Had a little fever, had a little cough
Was alive, passed a newspaper box
Saw no wars in the headlines
Had no bad news from the doctor
Not yet, was alive, was in love
Had waterproof boots on, it was only
A few yards to the bookstore
On an autumn night, the bookstore
Full of good books and yellow light, I was
Still alive, there was no news yet
Of the terminal illness, there were no wars
In the headlines, I have always
Loved the fall the beautiful dead
Bodies of the leaves scattered
On the battlefield of earth and my own
If we want to Love, we have to get perspective. And keep it. We have to begin living like we’re dying, like we only had a month or a week to live—or that those we claim to love only have a week or a month to live.
When we live as though life goes on forever, when we live as if we have some personal dispensation or some get out of death and dying free card, we live badly. Make no mistake about it, the moment you or I forget that we are beings who will die, who could at any moment, out of the blue, turn cold and die, that in a matter of weeks or days, as improbable and as gimmicky as it may seem, we or a loved one could get a terminal diagnosis or end up crumpled in a car wreck on an expressway, the moment we close our eyes and our minds and, most importantly, our hearts to this possibility and dismiss it as possible but not probable, we begin to live and love badly.
In this world
Hate never dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the Way,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
You too will pass away.
Knowing this, how can you quarrel?
Only death sets things in order—or forces us to. Only death forces us to live honestly, more courageously, authentically. Only death forces us to get over ourselves and our pettiness and resistances and to open our hearts. Only death forces us to the quick and to declare ourselves once and for all—
(from the motion picture “Shadowlands”):
Jack (C. S. Lewis) “Yesterday, a friend of mine, a very brave good woman collapsed in terrible pain. One minute she was fit and well…and the next minute she was in agony. Now she’s in a hospital, and this morning I was told she’s suffering from cancer. Why? If you love someone, you don’t want them to suffer. You can’t bear it. You want to take their suffering onto yourself. . . . It’s unthinkable. . . . How could Joy have been my wife? I’d have to love her, wouldn’t I? I’d have to care more for her than for anyone else in this world. I’d have to be suffering the torments of the damned. The prospect of losing her… I just want her to be well again, you see. . . . What a dangerous world we live in. . . .”
Warnie: “You’ve been up all night. Why don’t you get some sleep?”
Jack: “No. I can’t sleep. It’s all too soon, you see. I just haven’t had time, that’s all.”
Warnie: “Time for what?”
Jack: “I don’t know. To talk, to say things.”
Warnie: “It doesn’t take long.”
Jack: “No, I suppose not. Whatever it is, I should just say it. You must be right, Warnie. But it’s difficult, you see.”
(Jack goes into the hospital room to see Joy)
Joy: “Jack, I have to know how bad it is. They won’t tell me.”
Jack: “That’s because they’re not sure themselves.”
Jack: “I don’t know any more than they do.”
Joy: “Before Douglas gets here, I need to know.”
Jack: “…They say you’re going to die.”
Joy: “Okay. Yes. Thank you. . . . Jack . . . you seem different. You look at me properly now.”
Jack: “Didn’t I before?”
Joy: “Not properly.”
Jack: “I don’t want to lose you.”
Joy: “I don’t want to be lost.”
Jack: “It’s all come too soon, you see? I want to marry you, Joy. I want to marry you before God and the world.”
Joy: “—Make an honest woman out of me?”
Jack: “Not you. It’s me who hasn’t been honest. Look what it takes to make me see sense.”
Joy: “You think I’ve overdone it?”
Jack: “Please don’t leave me, Joy . . . . Will you marry this foolish, frightened old man who needs you more than he can bear to say, who loves you even though he hardly knows how?”
Every significant decision we make should be made like this—as if we’re dying, as if we only had a week or a month to live, as if the other person were dying, as if the other person only had a week or a month to live. How much cursed pettiness and resentment, self-importance and resistance would be dropped then? “Love is what’s left after all of the selfishness has been removed.” How much of our nonsense would be dropped or softened instantly if we were really able to think far enough forward and consult with our deathbed version of our self and ask him or her what we really wish we’d done right now—whether we will have wished right now in this moment that we would have chosen love or fear, comfort or courage, safety or suffering, the easy way or the more difficult way, to open the heart or to shut it down further, to love more deeply and courageously and more vulnerably or to have reactively checked out and gone numb and opted for a smaller, frightened life without intimacy, love and contact?
“The confrontation with death—and the reprieve from it—makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful…..Death, and its ever present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we’d never die.” (Abraham Maslow, from a letter written while recuperating from a heart attack)
And if we can’t yet make decisions like this, with a honest awareness of death and our own mortality, then we would be wise to learn how to double check our significant life decisions as soon as possible by passing them through this filter—as if we’re dying, or as if we and the other person only had a week or month to live.
Look at all the of the people walking around shell-shocked after a natural disaster or after getting a terminal diagnosis. Look at all of the people with the color drained from their faces—with all of the fight and resistance drained from their bodies. What are they resisting and holding onto now? Their entire lives have become clearinghouses; they are groundless; they’ve had the rugged pulled out from beneath them and their life. what things are they wishing now that they would have done differently?
“Why love if losing hurts so much?” asks C. S. Lewis at the end of “Shadowlands.” “I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived. And twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: As a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety. The man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”
What other point is there to all of this? Aggrandizing ourselves? Staying comfortable and safe and tepid? No one gets out of here alive. So why not learn how to live and love with greater intensity, clarity, courage, determination & urgency while there’s still time?
Why live and die an unlived and loveless life?