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December 10, 2012 » 4:31 pm

Living Life Like It’s the End

I got into a car accident yesterday. I was driving in the middle lane of a three-lane freeway, and an SUV snuck up to my left and changed into my lane without looking. I swerved to get out of the way, swerved again to try and regain control, spun out, crashed into the median, and watched helplessly as the oncoming traffic headed straight toward me.

Remarkably, neither I nor my friend Pete, who was in the car with me, were hurt. I find it miraculous that I am alive and unharmed. If any number of tiny things had turned out differently, I very well could be dead.

I shared this story this morning with my team at Groupaya, along with a reminder to live in the moment. In response, Kristin Cobble shared some wise words from her friend, Vanda Marlow. Vanda noted that we often go through life as if we are in the middle of our lives, but that we actually may be close to the end. We have no way of knowing.

My accident definitely woke me up to this, but Vanda’s words made me wonder: How would living our lives this way (as if we were near the end rather than the middle) affect our desire to do long-term projects?

For example, my friend, Matthew, was telling me the other day that Square has a 5,000 year vision (about the amount of time that money has existed). If you have a 5,000-year vision, you have no chance of seeing it through (ignoring, for a moment, my nanotechnology friends who believe that we are pretty close to unlocking the secrets of immortality). So why would anyone ever pursue anything like this?

I have two answers to this question. First, there’s the old saw about the journey being more important than the destination. I believe it. The destination can be valuable in shaping your journey, but ultimately, if the journey itself does not bring you alive, it’s probably not worth it.

I remember reading a story about how famed director, Robert Altman, was planning on making a new movie when he died. He was in his 80s and had leukemia. The chances of him finishing that movie were essentially zero, and he died before he even got started. But it didn’t matter to him. He loved making movies, and every step of that journey — whether or not he got to finish — brought him alive.

Second, thinking about impact beyond the length of your life does not render your actions futile. It simply requires that you think differently. You may not be able to live forever (again, nanotechnology not withstanding), but the impact that you have on other people will reverberate long past your own life.

In a strange way, whether or not you are a long-term or short-term thinker, the notion of living your life as if you’re near the end results in the same conclusion: Honor and nurture your relationships. They’re the things that matter most.

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12 Responses to “Living Life Like It’s the End”

  1. Wow, that's terrifying. I'm so glad to hear you and Pete are okay.

  2. So glad you guys are unharmed and glad that you took something positive out of the experience.

  3. Hi Eugene,

    Glad to hear you are safe! Great blog post as well. Here's my take on your question – "So why would anyone ever pursue anything like this (a 5000 year vision) ?". My take is this vision isn't about 'you' its about the 'we'. Its about thinking beyond one's self. The I won't see the vision to its completion but the 'we' might. When 'I' get involved with projects now, I try to stress the we. There is something quite wonderful about thinking beyond ones owns needs and being passionate about an idea that might seed yet more ideas from other people and its just keeps going.

  4. I'm glad to hear you and your friend are ok. Thanks for your post, it's the best clarification I've read of the paradox of the journey and the goal.

    BTW, I think I spotted a small typo "…the old saw about the…"

  5. Thanks for posting this. And I hope don't have to say I'm happy you're alive. ;)

    Lately I am frequently thinking about death and whether I'm spending my time wisely. I'm working on a project right now that I think has a 50 year horizon. But, right now the Conan O'Brien show is on in the background, and I'm reading Facebook. How can I justify this use of my time?

    The paradox, as you noted, is that if you really live every day like your last, you'd probably never do anything. Perhaps the real lesson – if you have stuff you're working on, get it out there. Don't labor in a garret somewhere for decades. Make it so your memes are spreading and evolving today. And maybe that others can take up your task if tomorrow you aren't able to.

    I find it also makes me think more about children. We're not here for long at all. Barely enough to say a few words or put a few stones on top of one another. Evolution is the big story on this planet, not our little careers.

  6. I'm happy to hear how you and Pete came away with fate like you did. It must have been an experience you carry with you forever, and may that road still ahead for both of you circle the earth.

    Holland's most renowned writer Harry Mulisch (recently deceased at a happy age of 83) used to explain how in his view one ought to live as if being immortal. Every somber thought of what might not be is a waste of energy. And if the end does come after all, and takes the denier by surprise, in Harry's (and mine) atheistic view there is no soul who can regret the mistake, of feel shortchanged. Of course easier said than done, but every now and then I find the idea comforting.

    BTW the prospect of countless years to go did not make Mulisch a slacker. He wrote tens of novels. Discovery of Heaven was voted best Dutch novel ever, and made into a great film starring Stephen Fry. With the prospect on an eternal life ahead you'll find time to read it, and why not learn Dutch first and read the original, no hurry ;-)

  7. Thank you so much for the well wishes and kind words, Ger. "Old saw" is an expression that essentially means, "old saying."

  8. Thank you all for the well wishes and especially for the wonderful stories. I love the notions of focusing on the "we," on living as if you were immortal, and on simply getting stuff out there. Erik, I'm going to pick up Discovery of Heaven, although I'm afraid that I'm not as industrious as Mulisch, even with the prospects of living forever, and will probably go for the translated version. ;-)

    Check out some of the Facebook comments about this ordeal, as there are some great stories and thinking there as well:
    https://www.facebook.com/eekim/posts/101513251062

  9. Thanks for blogging this Eugene – and thanks for all the warm wishes, everyone! Eugene, you left out one important piece, that the day's destination — a mushroom gathering expedition — was a great success in spite of all the fuss! Some pics: https://plus.google.com/photos/108178869218209853

    Erik, funny enough, we were just commenting during that drive about how you always have such excellent things to say in online discussions. Thanks for maintaining your record here ;)

    One other comment. I don't think I was as scared as Eugene while we spun out — I think I learned right there how deep my trust and respect for him goes. In this case, probably more a result of playing basketball and hiking together, and having seen him stay calm under physical pressure in the past. I can't think who I would have trusted more in the driver's seat as we flipped around — though of course my heart did jump a bit when we flung back into traffic after going off the road the first time! (We were also lucky that another driver reported to the police that the SUV or pickup was clearly at fault.)

    Sorry, no deep thoughts to share on Life right at the moment – but I enjoyed reading all of yours :)

  10. Eric, we are all very glad that you and your friend Pete are safe and that the car accident hurt nothing more than your car. I look forward to reading the posts you write as an 80-year old.

  11. Eugene, glad to hear both you & Pete survived and are writing about the experience!

    In past life-threatening situations (car / bike accidents, turbulence in airplanes), what's kept me calm was knowing that we are all in it together — the people around me (if there are any), and humanity writ large (i.e., that we are all going to die some day). That thought eventually leads me back to the notion that we're all living, at the same time, on the same planet. And that inspires me.

  12. Thanks Eugene. I hadn't heard that expression before. Another thing learned ;-)

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