The Deathbed Principle

    There are major changes on the horizon for me. Decisions have been made and notices have been given, but a lot of things regarding the near future are still uncertain as well. It’s scary, not knowing exactly how things will work out, and not being able to take action until circumstances that are out of one’s control get settled, which they tend to do in their own unbothered time.

    I could have stayed in the same place, in comfort. There’s nothing wrong with comfort in and of itself, and there's nothing I'm running away from. But I also don’t want to be done with taking chances, with running toward adventurous and loving things, at the ripe young age of thirty-five. On one hand this is because I hope that, at thirty-five, I am not even halfway through my life, and I prefer not to spend the remaining decades playing it safe for fear of losing what I’ve built up so far as far as security (or the illusion of it) is concerned. On the other hand, I say it because even at thirty-five I am not safe, and not one more day--not one more hour--is guaranteed. Every moment may be my last chance to do what I truly want.

    I like to live by something called “the Deathbed Principle”, which basically means I like to think about what the dying version of myself (which is, let’s be honest, just myself) will wish I would have done. Well, I like to think I like to live by it. I’d forgotten about it for a while, which is one of the dangers too much comfort can bring. But a friend recently passed away, and that event just so happens to have coincided with my fears about my current life situation, so I’ve been meditating on it again.  

    It didn’t become relevant until after I became an ex-Christian, because the kind of Christianity I was raised with was always more concerned with the afterlife than real life. There was never really any reason to worry about regret in terms of opportunities lost (only regret related to sin) because a celestial paradise was on its way, the experience of which would make the memories of this Earth-bound existence not even worthy of consideration.

    The only problem is that there’s no proof of that. I think it’s better to assume that when we’re dead, we’re dead--for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it helps a person (or at least it helps me) suss out what I really want to do, what really resonates with my best core self, as opposed to what the game (the family game, the social game, the church game) expects of me. I prefer to remember that one day, perhaps quite soon, I’m going to die, and to let this finality be a cause for celebration and courageous action.

    In that spirit I feel inspired to share something, a piece I wrote a few years ago for a teaching project inspired by the NPR series “This I Believe”. I've updated it based on what's happened in my life since the last time I looked at it, and I hope it can act as some measure of encouragement for another just like it's been for me:

“The Deathbed Principle”

    My most recent encounter with death came a few weeks ago. A friend and former colleague succumbed to an illness with which he had been living for a relatively short but significant amount of time. A few years before that, a friend from grad school died suddenly of a condition she did not know she had. A few years before that, one of my best friends from college was killed in a car accident on a foggy night on a highway in central California.

    It seems I have been dealing with the end of others’ lives since close to the beginning of my own. My maternal grandmother, a frequent presence in my early existence, died of cervical cancer when I was 7, and a year later her son, my uncle, only 30 years old, passed away quickly from lymphoma. In between those deaths and the most recent ones, there were the more commonly felt losses of friends of friends, loose acquaintances, and distant relatives to other diseases, accidents, and suicides.

    I do not mean to invoke a depressive mood, or to imply that I’m living in some sort of state of perpetual survivor’s guilt. On the contrary, once the grief becomes bearable and is even, sometimes, for a moment forgotten, what I am left with is a gem of a lesson, an affirmation in the wake of the harsh reality that life is necessarily impermanent. That lesson is this: I believe in the Deathbed Principle.

    The Deathbed Principle is not about thrill-seeking in the sense of running after adrenaline highs or flirting with physical danger. It is not about being careless and crazy while you’re here because you won’t be here forever. Rather, it comes down to one simple question--a question I pull out in times of uncertainty or fear. The question is this: if I should be lucky enough to be mentally present for my own last breaths, in that moment, what will I wish I had done? Will I wish I had fought to make this relationship work, or that I had walked away? Will I wish I would have pursued that new degree or hobby? Will I wish I would’ve gone out more, or stayed in? Will I wish I would’ve pushed myself further in that one particular pursuit, or given myself a break and just enjoyed being good enough?

    The truth is, I will have last breaths, and perhaps sooner than I would have liked. We all will. No amount of planning, rule-following, make-up wearing, exercising, meditating, reading, traveling, schooling, or do-gooding is going to change that. Your time is already passing; your life has already started, and so has mine. We are not earning our lives; we are living them. They are gifts, though they may not always feel like it.

    I believe in doing what you would want to have done once all of your time has been spent. I believe this is the one turn we get, as far as anybody can tell, and that our hours and days and months and years should be considered rare and special. I believe in making decisions based on my truest, deepest desires rather than perceived obligations, and I believe there is freedom in this practice, for everyone. I believe in the Deathbed Principle.