One of my favourite questions to ask anybody is, “If you had 24 hours left to live, what would you do?”
After the initial split second flicker of confusion on their faces, the replies come pretty quickly. Spend the whole day with my family. Tell that special someone how I feel. Travel to that destination of my dreams, and die there. Quit my job and punch my boss in the face. Etc.
I cannot help but smile, watching them plan out the last 24 hours of their lives in a matter of seconds. Their faces reflect a soft, tender glow – yes, even the guy who wants to punch his boss – and their voices ring with conviction and hope.
Then I ask my second question: “So what makes you think you currently have more than 24 hours to live?”
The answer has been generally similar – “Huh? Choy!”
(For the non-Singaporeans reading this, “Choy!” is a local expression used to demonstrate mild shock and hopefully ward off bad luck when morbid or highly unpleasant possibilities are brought up. Eg. “I think Donald Trump will be the new American President…” “CHOY!!!”)
Isn’t it terribly ironic that the only certainty in life is something that fills us with fear and uncertainty? Isn’t it just as ironic that the reminder of our mortality helps us to realize what is most important to us, whether it is kissing that special girl or hitting that awful boss, and yet, it is also our mortality that limits the time we have to fulfil these important things?
Death is scary. We don’t know when we’re going to die, how or where we die. Will it be painful? Will we die surrounded by loving family and friends or alone in the cold hospital room? What happens after that? Different religions speak of different endings and beginnings, and while we may strongly believe in our faith, nobody we directly know has ever come back from the dead to say, “Yes, this is how it is, just like (insert religious belief) says!”
To put it simply, death is certain, and also uncertain.
Because we don’t fully understand death, we avoid it the best we can, whether with highly invasive life-sustaining interventions, or superstitious declarations like “Choy!”, and within this avoidance we busk in our delusional sense of immortality.
There will always be tomorrow, next week and next month.
But will there, really?
If your inner voice is going, ‘Choy!”, please silence it long enough to read on, and then you can ‘choy’ as much as you need to after that.
In recent years, a catch phrase ‘YOLO- You Only Live Once’ has emerged, mainly with the younger generation. Leaping off a plane at 15 000 feet? YOLO. Splurging all your money on a trip around the world? YOLO. Basically do whatever you’ve always wanted to do, even if it’s really batshit crazy, because YOLO.
The idea behind “YOLO” is refreshing in a society mostly living to make ends meet on a daily basis. It provides the reminder that you only have this life to live, and therefore should make the most out of it.
However, what it fails to remind is, you don’t know when you are going to die. You may die tomorrow. Or after reading this article. Or in the middle of reading it.
“Choy” all you want, but life is THAT unpredictable.
So what should we do?
Death is a mystery that perhaps can only be fully understood when we experience it ourselves. And while we cannot fully comprehend this inevitable fate of ours, we can prepare ourselves the best for it.
There is no one true method to prepare for death. Some people have a bucket list, others a will, yet others an Advance Medical Directive. And then some, after answering the question, “If you had 24 hours left to live, what would you do?” are reminded that the most important things already belong to them, and they appreciate these gifts with a renewed awareness and meaning. Or they set out to quit their job and hit their boss in the quest for a more fulfilling purpose.
Preparing for death isn’t necessarily a grandiose affair, even though YOLO. Preparing for death is simply acknowledging and accepting our fragile mortality, and the mortality of those around us, and living life in a way that does not disappoint this beautiful and chaotic impermanence. Preparing for death means not saying “Choy!” when someone brings up the topic of death, but opening our minds and hearts to a reflective discussion of this one absolute certainty in life that we all share.
Preparing for death, at its most fundamental, is living well.
So dear reader, now that we’re almost done here, just a quick question – “What would you do if you had only 24 hours left to live?”
You do know you might really only have 24 hours left to live. Right?