I’m the oldest young man I know. I’m twenty-five. I hardly ever drink. I don’t party. I’m usually in bed by nine o’clock. I don’t drink caffeine; peppermint tea is my standard beverage. Most of the time, I’d rather read a book than do anything else.
I am old in habits, and young in biology.
But sometimes I think, what will happen when I am old? When I’m a pensioner? When I’m in the twilight of my life? Will I be able to look back over my time here and feel content? Will I feel ashamed? Will I feel joy at the opportunities seized, or remorse at the chances forsaken?
In the abstract, those questions are hard to answer. But what if we make them less abstract and fill in the canvas a little? How about we add some detail to this imagined scenario?
A few months ago, I was declared cancerous and told I have six months to live. I’ve spent most of these remaining months surrounded by family and friends, and doing what I love. But today I’m spending time with my children.
I’m sat in my favourite armchair. The children are on the sofa next to me. My wife is sat beside them. The kids are old enough to understand mortality but young enough to not be intimidated by it. We explained to them what was happening as soon as we knew I was going to die. There were tears and tantrums and many questions. But, eventually, they’ve come to accept it, as much as children can accept the coming loss of a parent.
Today it seems they’re particularly subdued. They know I have only six months. We’re halfway through the fifth. I’m weak. They can see it and they can sense it. As my wife and I converse, I see the two children quietly whispering. I ask them what they’re whispering about. They pause and look at each other. One of them nods. The other turns to me, takes a breath, and asks me a question: “Daddy, did you live a good life?” I stay silent and rise from my armchair. I shuffle across the room and lower myself into the seat between my wife and my kids. “I think so darling, I think so.”
“Did you live a good life?” It’s a question that we would only consider asking of people who are nearing the end of their life. Like the man in the story above. But, the truth is, we’re all nearing the end of our lives. Some are nearer to it than others, but we cannot tell who.
Last week, Molly was away, and as is my custom, I spent a lot of time inside my own head. One night, as I was writing my to-do list and preparing for the next day, I imagined that, after going to sleep, I wouldn’t wake up again. So I asked myself the question: have I lived a good life? This spawned another question. I don’t know how to define a “good life”. So I asked myself, what are the metrics of a life well lived? Thinking on it, I’ve come up with a few:
- Love. Have I loved others? Have I loved myself? Have I loved all the great things on this planet? Have I loved being alive?
- Skin in the game. If I am a believer in freedom, did I fight against tyranny? If I believe in the power of kindness and honesty, did I call out the cruel and the manipulative? If I believe in the sanctity of the world’s environment, did I stand against those whose actions are destroying it? Did I take risks for what I believe in?
- Alignment. Do my words and my deeds match up? Did I do what I said I was going to do? Did I live by my principles, or did I honor them with empty words whilst violating them with my actions?
- Courage. Was I an intellectual coward? Someone who flees and fear ideas and beliefs alien to their own? Someone who runs from what is uncomfortable and unfamiliar? Or was I courageous? Did I seek out and search for contradictions? Did I embrace uncertainty and un-knowledge?
- Responsibility. Did I take responsibility for my life and actions, and for the impact these things have on others? Or did I dodge it, blaming everyone and everything but myself for whatever happened?
- Generations. Did I help or harm future generations? Have I made their life easier or harder? Did I contribute a brick to the infinite structure of human understanding? Or did I take one away?
Love, skin in the game, alignment, courage, responsibility, and a generational focus. These are my metrics of a life well lived. They may be different from yours. But whatever the metric is, it must always be assessed via a question. And wouldn’t it make much more sense to ask these questions while we still have some time? While we still have a chance to change the answers for the better?
Do not do as so many do and wait until they’re on their death bed to reflect and determine whether they have lived well. Ask yourself the question this week, tomorrow, today. For death waits around a curve in the road, but we cannot see which curve and which road. Ask the question now and use the answers to change before it’s too late.