Prioritizing Goals with Death

Before his death from esophageal cancer, the hard-drinking polemicist Christopher Hitchens wrote that living with a mortal illness was to live in a “double frame of mind.” You are at once preparing for the end while taking every step you can to survive. Or, as he quipped: “Lawyers in the morning and doctors in the afternoon.”

Such dualistic thinking is not reserved for those who are terminally sick. We are all tasked with trying to balance present and future desires. How can we enjoy life to the fullest today without jeopardizing our future goals, and vice versa?

The binary choice between short-term and long-term and what our hearts say versus what society expects, surrounds everything in life — our relationships, our careers, our health, our money. Do I want to get married or not? Should I take the job I love or the one that pays more? Should I eat this box of donuts or go for a run? Should I spend money now or save it for later? And all of those decisions compete with each other.

We are left to prioritize our goals, which is hard. It’s hard to choose what goals to aspire to as the human brain is not always rational, the future is always uncertain and our lives frequently change.

When the balancing act becomes overwhelming — that is, you’re faced with difficult choices — you may want to take a walk, preferably past a cemetery.

Why? Because research suggests an awareness of death can help people identify and nurture the things that will lead to a more meaningful and healthier life.

What’s So Good About Thinking About Death?

If there is one silver lining of the pandemic, it may be the heightened awareness of death. The risk of infection and time under quarantine prompted people to reevaluate their lives. As a result, many people changed jobs, moved to new cities and adopted new habits.

Stoic philosophers encouraged people to think about death every day. Epictetus advised parents to indulge their fear of death as they put their children to bed: “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?” Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations, reminds himself: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.

They believed habitually recognizing your mortality would help lead you to living a good life. It would increase your sense of gratitude and direct you toward virtuous behaviors.

Studies indicate the Stoics were on to something.

For years, a predominate theory stated that thinking about death filled us with fear. To cope, people turn to violence, greed and other destructive behaviors, such as chasing after material goods and/or frivolous experiences — what is often referred to as the hedonic treadmill.

However, recent research has uncovered findings that argue the opposite. A report from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology analyzed various scientific studies that show potential benefits from thinking about death. It concluded that “an awareness of mortality can help us re-prioritize our goals and values.

In one field experiment, researchers observed people who were either walking through a cemetery or along a street a block away. Actors near the chosen participants held scripted conversations about helping others or another control topic. One actor would then purposely drop a notebook. What they found is that a significantly greater number of participants in the cemetery would help pick up the notebook than those walking outside of view of the cemetery.

The report notes that other experiments have replicated the study’s findings, showing that “the awareness of death can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism.”

The benefits are not only psychological. Thinking about death can also promote better health. Further studies found that a reminder of death can motivate people to make better health choices, such as using more sunscreen, smoking less or increasing levels of exercise.

Instead of developing a bacchanalian YOLO attitude, people who have an acute perspective of their limited time on earth seem to become more conscious of the virtue in their decisions.

Don’t Just Take My Word for It

Perhaps, death acts as a fulcrum between the present and future, helping us to prioritize that which we will value at all times.

That seems to be the message of people, like Hitchens, who openly discussed their lives after given only a short time to live. Based on their words, we can gather that an enhanced awareness of death will essentially do two things:

  1. Help you to love the right things; and
  2. Motivate you to love them the right way

In When Breath Becomes Air, the neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, writes:

“Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.”

According to Kalanithi, life should not be about jumping from one goal to the next. Instead, when aware of your own finitude, you cherish what matters most to you and stop wasting time worrying about all things that won’t matter in the end. Not your reputation, not your car, not your wealth compared to others. Consider another Bible verse, this one from Jesus, who asks: “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life’s span?” (Luke 12:25).

Accompanying this clearer view of what matters most is an eagerness to nurture those things with whatever resources are available to you — time, money, energy, etc. Shortly after also being diagnosed with terminal cancer, the celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks penned an essay in which he declared, with the time he had left:

I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky shared both Kalanthini’s and Sacks’s sentiments about death. He didn’t have a terminal illness, but knew what it felt like to know you are certain to die soon. Sentenced to death for circulating literature that was prohibited by the tsar, he paraded out into a public square in St. Petersburg with other inmates to be executed. Then in a twist of fate, the tsar pardoned their lives as a callous way to build adulation among the people.

Still, after staring death in the face, Dostoevsky underwent a life-altering transformation that he describes in a letter to his brother:

“Life in the casemate has already sufficiently killed off in me the needs of the flesh that were not completely pure; before that I took little care of myself. Now deprivations no longer bother me in the slightest, and therefore don’t be afraid that material hardship will kill me.”

His near-death experience in a sense killed off his desire for trivial things and gave him a newfound confidence to live without the fear of not having those things.

Another man told that he would soon die echoed Dostoevsky. He even came to regard an awareness of death as a valuable decision-making tool. His name was Steve Jobs, and he told a group of college graduates and the world this:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

What death seems to teach us about living a good life isn’t necessarily to prioritize the achievement of goals and all the accolades and rewards that come with them. But rather to honor your values, follow your passions, dedicate yourself to only things that give your life the most meaning — today, tomorrow, always.

Time is a limited commodity, which means every day is valuable. There is nothing to lose, nothing to fail at, when it all feels like borrowed time.

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