Why dying is the way to live wisely

One of the things I’m struggling most with is this concept of legacy. I’m a planner. Before this diagnosis I’d been thinking of my 1st 35 years — aside from being a ton of fun and travel — as preparation. I felt like I was building a platform (savings, networks, skills, experience) that I could then use in my second act to make a real contribution, to “make my mark”, to build a real legacy for my kids. Perhaps that was a mistake on my part, because I may have no time to do that now. I guess I’m panicking a little.

Came across this story earlier today on Medium Digest: https://medium.com/@sgriddle/im-35-and-i-may-suddenly-have-lost-the-rest-of-my-life-i-m-panicking-just-a-bit-35d6a28dcbc

When I finally got to the reveal — the part of the story when Scott shared the terminal diagnosis — the first thought that come to mind is oddly: liberation.

When you’re dying, you get a pass to not worry about all social construct.

All your impending deadlines, responsibilities, plans, performance review goals, tasks, first world problems, became irrelevant.

And you’re left with “so, what really matters?”

It reminds me of an episode in Tim Ferriss’ podcast where he interviewed BJ Miller.

Parts of the interview struck a deep chord in me.

And I internalise things better through reading rather than audio.

So I did a literal transcript of the interview (including all the filler words, so it might not read as smoothly).

TF: [I want to talk about the] things you notice that most help people in hospice care, what really brings the most peace to these people?

BJ: I think one of the joys, one of the upshots, the silver linings, about end of life is, if you wanted to, if you let it, you can let a lot of the rules that govern our daily lives fly out the window.

Because you realise that we’re walking around in systems in society, and much of what consumes most of our days, is not something that, you know, it’s not some natural order.

We’re all navigating some superstructure that we humans created. That is the work day, the work week, whatever it is, you know, it’s not [unfinished sentence…]

I think part of the trick is if when you’re dealing with serious illness, or some unnatural trauma, or our facing the end of your life, oftentimes that becomes crystal clear.

Like where you’ve been hanging out and spending so much of your time and energy and worry is been on, is like living in someone else’s dream. Yknow, it’s not, sure, I mean, society, and what we have structured there, there is a lot of importance to it, I don’t mean to dismiss it, but we inherit that. We don’t spend a lot of time creating our realities in a [….], most of us don’t, in a, sort of, in a.., clear intentional way.

And so when you have this excuse to forget all that, it can be really liberating. Umm, a little bit scary too cause a lot of people then invariably realise that they feel like they had been wasting so much of their time on things that actually weren’t that important.

And that’s part of the trick of checking yourself, [you know, overtime, you know, on a daily way], am I doing things that I really care about, etc.

So back to your question, so you know, to just point about simple things. And then the simple things, uh, the small things ain’t so small. You know actually. Umm. like I was saying about the snowball. There is the joy of feeling anything, of having a body at all, of being capable of movement at all.

That is so profound and so potent. And yet, you know, I don’t know how many of us take that, I think most of us take that for granted, you know.

Umm, so, anyway, as a clinician and as a person, I love looking for moments where the rules get to go out the window. I love when I have, you know, love having residents at the guest house, at Zen Hospice, who smoke, frankly. Yknow, anything that just kinda gets to, that kind of reorient us and put things on a proper proportion in relationship to the natural world. and rejiggers our priorities. I love that reorienting feeling.

And the part where they discussed the idea of existential distress.

It’s a crisis of meaning in some way or another. It’s particularly potent at the end of life when people don’t have much time left to make meaning, and they realise they haven’t been living a very meaningful life or haven’t thought much about it. It can be really traumatising to realise oh gosh, […] take all of that seriously and then realise you don’t have much time to do much with it.

Existential distress is very nascent.

Steve Jobs’ classic speech at Stanford carries the same wisdom from a slightly different tangent.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

When you’re bogged down in bullshit problems you invent for yourself in the daily grind, take a step back and ask these questions until you feel peace:

  1. What is my definition of a meaningful life?
  2. Have I spent today with that proper perspective?

I’ll end by quoting Scott again:

Stop just assuming you have a full lifetime to do whatever it is you dream of doing.


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1eLfGgOjHRU
  2. https://tim.blog/2016/04/14/bj-miller/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1R-jKKp3NA
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/oct/06/steve-jobs-pancreas-cancer

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