Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | May 8, 2010

The Moment Before Death

I want to tell you about the moment before death. Not being close to death myself, of course, I can’t know what moment holds. But you can’t either, and that’s the point.

You know what I’m talking about: everyone wants to be able to look back on their lives at the very end and say, hey, I lived well, I was a good person, I did a good job, good for me. We don’t like to think about how obsessed we are with that moment, because it’s embarrassing. Yet it is the motivating factor behind so much of what we do. We wait for it like a bar mitzvah or a birthday, even though we know it’s our last party and probably won’t be very much fun. We work every day to accomplish something so we can have accomplished it, so at the moment before death we can congratulate ourselves on having accomplished it. Good show, old chap; now enjoy your last breath, you’ve earned it.

Paul Anka wrote a song about the moment before death, and it became a big hit for Sinatra. Also, there is The Bucket List, a film about two old men who haven’t lived the way they wanted, and who spend the last six months of their lives fixing that so they can die with clear consciences. Good for them. Would their lives have been any better or worse if they had spent six months in their thirties climbing Mount Everest, and then come back and worked hard until they died? Apparently not; it’s the timing that counts.

We know, of course, ofpeople who live their lives for the moment after death, when St. Peter will give them the old upperdown based on their lifetime batting average against sin’s pitchers. The Puritans, bless their hearts, went to incredible lengths just to get a sneak peak at what God had decided to do with them after they died — not even to change their fate, since God had already made up his mind about that before they were born, but to find out what was going to happen so they could prepare for it. The point is, we laugh at those people for living in the next life when they should be focusing on this one. But the rest of us, I want to argue, are doing the same thing when we obsess about the moment before death.

For one thing, there is a very good chance we won’t know that moment when it comes — we’ll die in our sleep, or in a coma, or be hit by a bus in mid-sentence. No amount of preparation can control for this or ensure that everything is in order for a moment that we can’t predict. Somerset Maugham mocked people who thought this way, and he was right: Death has an appointment for us at a place and time of its choosing. And if that time and place is in front of a bus when our back is turned, and we have no chance to reflect before succumbing, is there a “moment before death” at all?

And let’s not even think about those sad people who live for the moment before death until they suddenly realize their best moment is the final one, but one that has already happened years earlier. Both before and after this realization, they are living for a moment that is distant from their own. The same goes for people who drag guilt around with them wherever they go, like Jacob Marley and his chains. But do you see how similar our anticipation is to their nostalgia?

The point is that the moment before death is neither more nor less important than any other moment. Wise people realize this, but we are all wise about death when we die; real wisdom involves understanding things before you actually have to experience them. So we’re unhappy right before we go; so what? Most people are unhappy then, because dying hurts. The most common thought before death is “Ouch!” On his deathbed, the actor Edmund Gwenn remarked, “Dying is easy — comedy is hard,” thus proving himself a master of both.

Are we afraid we’ll judge ourselves wanting? Fair enough, but we can do that right now if we like, and our self-judgments now are no more or less important than they’ll be at the end. Are we afraid of what other people will think of us? If they’re thinking it then, they’ll have been thinking it for a long time.

A relationship that ends badly is not necessarily, all told a bad relationship. If you don’t like the new Star Trek movie, you don’t have to hate all the old Patrick Stewart episodes you liked when you were a kid. We know these things, and yet we don’t apply that knowledge to how we view the course of our lives. I’m as guilty of this as the next fellow. It’s one thing to know the moment before death is unimportant, and another to stop living as if it were.

How would you change if you were indifferent to the moment before death? How should I know? It would probably depend on what you’re doing that has no real value except to make you look better at your final self-reckoning, and what you’re not doing in order to do that valueless thing. Some people would probably put up with less frustration than they do. Others would attach more significance to their experiences. We can talk about this all day, but you won’t know unless you try it for yourself, and neither will I.

This is not an argument for throwing caution to the winds, or for “living for today,” or for failing to plan for the future. Prudence is an important part of living, particularly if it is going to result in happiness or avoid sorrow down the road. What is key is that we not mistake that prudence for a postponement of actual living until graduation, promotion, retirement, or the moment before death. We are living every day, you and I, whether we like it or not. And if we don’t like it, we should ask ourselves why, and think hard about the answers.

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  1. There’s a Harlan Ellison story called “The Cheese Stands Alone” [spoiler alert] in which a man in mid-life encounters a surreal, ghostly library in which our deepest, most important questions could be answered, if we have the courage to really ask them. He asks the question “what will be the high point of my life?” and finds that it was many years ago, and there’s no hope of matching it in his remaining years. It’s a terrible moment.

  2. Wow — amazing.

    On the other hand, couldn’t he have been content if A high point was still to come? I know, a hard thing to ask. For me too.

  3. I think the important part isn’t realizing that we should be living well for our entire lives. For many that is easy. For many that’s actually pounded into their minds to the point of meaningless (although many times it’s through mixed messages that aren’t quite healthy to receive). But to actually live that way instead of just thinking about it that way is the hard and important part.

  4. Ross, don’t I know it! Good comment.

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