June 12, 2003    Philosophy

Live Like It’s the End of the World

“Live like there is no tomorrow” is a popular piece of wisdom. Most of us have tried to imagine what that is like, and have figured that it would not work. The common way people reason is that if you had no tomorrow, you would party so wildly that you would have nothing left for the day after tomorrow. Practically speaking, this would be disastrous, since there is a very good chance that you will live to see another day.

But this reasoning is faulty, or it is a bad assumption. If you actually see the face of death, you find that the things you wish to do are quite mundane. First of all, you would probably have many things you would like to communicate with your friends and relatives about. Petty differences suddenly go out of the window, and you become much more appreciative of the people around you. If you have any friends or family members whom you have not spoken to in years because of bad feelings, petty fights, or philosophical differences, you would very likely want to make amends before you go.

I am sure most of you have one time or another wondered why those who commit suicide would not steal, rape, or vent their anger by shooting everyone with a machine gun before they kill themselves. There is a good reason for that. When you actually face death, you have much more respect for life. You may still feel hopeless for your own life, but you cannot help feeling more respect for the lives of others. Death is terrifying. It takes so much courage to actually face death that you have a hard time understanding how anyone else can deal with it. And, you realize that sooner or later absolutely everyone on this earth will have to face death. Though they may be clueless of their own fate now, you would feel like saluting the future versions of them facing this profound reality. Petty differences, envies, and jealousies all vanish in this realization.

You also become a better judge of what is profound and what is superficial. One of the first things you might imagine doing on the day before your death is having a decadent party with all the excesses: food, sex, drugs, and alcohol. This idea too, once you actually face death, is put on the back burner. Surprisingly more mundane things come upfront in your thoughts. You might want to enjoy eating your favorite dish, but not in excess; you just want to savor every bite of it. If you are passionate about art, you might want to savor that too. If you are passionate about making art, you might want to enjoy doing that with however little time you have left. Most of all, you would probably want to spend time with the people you love. The general tendency is that you suddenly become more appreciative of things you had taken for granted. And at the same time, you realize that many things you had dreamt of doing or having all your life are utterly irrelevant or superficial. This is why most people who commit suicide do not do things that you would think they do.

I personally want to go a step further. I want to live like there is no tomorrow for the whole world. This has vastly different implications than the original wisdom. Imagine a huge meteorite hitting the earth tomorrow. Even if the earth does not break up into pieces, the sky will be covered with thick dust which will prevent the sun light from reaching the earth, and all living beings will disappear from this earth. The entire history of mankind will vanish into ether. In this doomsday scenario, every great deed and every great person in history will fade into dust. It will make no difference how great a scientist you are, how talented a composer you are, how famous an actor you are, how brilliant a philosopher you are, or how accomplished a businessman you are. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Michelangelo, Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare, and Mozart; their accomplishments too will vanish without a trace as if they never existed. Famous figures who have been “immortalized” in our memory will dissolve into nothingness.

This has humbling existential implications. If you lived like there is no tomorrow for you, you might still waste your precious time trying to “immortalize” yourself in some way, because other people will presumably go on living after your death. That is, you might still concern yourself with doing or creating something that other people can remember you by. This has a comforting effect on your ego. Though you may be mortal, the idea of you can live on forever in the minds of others. In this psychology, there are two distinct forms of death: the death of you as an individual and the death of the world. In trying to pass on your legacy, you are still not entirely embracing death. You are refusing to die completely, and are desperately trying to live in some form. This act of desperation is futile as the example of meteorite illustrates. You might as well embrace death of everything.

What does it mean to live like the world has no tomorrow? You want to do things that are meaningful to you now and to you only. Never mind what or who history considers great. Never mind what could make you famous or successful in the future. Never mind what you have accomplished in your life. Never mind how famous or unknown you are. The past and future accomplishments of you and others will mean nothing whatsoever if the world is to end tomorrow. The only thing that would matter is what matters to you now and to you only. Doing whatever makes you feel grateful for life now is what it means to live like the world has no tomorrow.

Towards the end of “Tractatus”, Wittgenstein wrote, “The world is my world.” And he went on to say, “I am my world.” In this, there is no distinction of the death of the world and my own death. If I die tomorrow, the world ends at the same time. From this perspective, to live like there is no tomorrow, is the same as to live like the world has no tomorrow.