It’s a tantalizing question: “What would you do if you knew you only had a year to live?” Think about it—if you dare. In formulating a response, however, you must accept that there are no loopholes through which you can evade your scheduled demise; at the end of exactly one year, you die. Your answer should focus directly on how best to spend the time you have left. How would you answer?
When people seriously attempt to respond to this question they often mention things they might do, places they might visit, people with whom they might spend time. The movie The Bucket List gives a clever but shallow Hollywood treatment of how two terminally ill cancer patients spend their final days. Roger Ebert, the movie critic who has thyroid cancer, wrote in his review that The Bucket List “…thinks dying of cancer is a laff riot followed by a dime-store epiphany.” A Jack Nicholson send-up tells us what we need to know about our collective reluctance to even consider a scenario in which we know that we will soon be dead.
The question of how we might spend our last year on earth is arresting, but contrived. It almost never happens, not even to Death Row inmates. A better question, and one that’s a good deal less theoretical, is “What would you do if you thought you only had a year to live?”
This question is more like real life in that it introduces an element of doubt. When there appears to be certainty in any pursuit, it’s relatively easy to take action. But introduce doubt and we begin to distrust ourselves. Taken to the extreme, doubt leads to a paralysis of action. We ultimately place bets on most everything we do in life since we can never be certain of the outcome of most things, including most definitely the number of our days. The bet on how we spend our time is most interesting of all. Everything else we do follows from that decision.
No young man believes he will ever die. Frederick Buechner has written that the truth of the matter is that in some measure that is true of all men. Intellectually, we all know what we will die, but we do not really know it in the sense that the knowledge becomes part of us. We do not know it in the sense of living as though it were true. On the contrary, we tend to live as though our lives will go on forever. “We spend our lives like drunken sailors,” Buechner says.
By that, I believe Buechner has simply observed the carelessness of our relationships with each other, with creation, and especially with God. We barrel through life, anesthetized and insulated from its demanding truth and raw beauty. It’s as if we get on the freeway of life and never slow down until we’re running on fumes and the engine eventually cuts out. Even the thrill of speed eventually fades as everyone else around us seems intent on matching our pace.
When you consider that you might only have a year to live, little decisions take on added import. That which is frivolous and worldly is seen, correctly, as dispensable. What you say or write actually means something. Life becomes more directive—less a series of chance encounters and more clearly orchestrated by the maestro. When we acknowledge there is indeed a beginning and an end to things, including our lives, we live more gratefully and, one hopes, gracefully. It allows us to spend ourselves on others more extravagantly. In a way that defies logic, the passage of time becomes irrelevant.
I don’t have a bucket list, and I’m not interested in compiling one. As a cancer survivor, I can’t help but think that a year is a good, long stretch of time. I worry sometimes that I’m not doing all that I could be, but then I sit down, take a deep breath and regain my senses. I’ve lived most of my life trying to do more than I could accomplish well. My life on earth will eventually end, and with it will pass all the achievements and regrets that I’ve accumulated. In the meanwhile, in my hypothetical "year," I will live deliberately. I am mindful that life is sweet, and all the more so by remembering that it is also fleeting.