Last week, I wrote about the centrality of weekly rest in my life. Sundays are precious as days for rest, restoration, and contemplation. In that spirit, I will recycle “Death Action Matrix”, an essay I wrote in 2003 (when I was 36 years old) about how contemplating own death could be a possible organizing frame for determining my priorities on various timescales. Even though I often come revisit the ideas I wrote then, I will confess that it’s been a very long time since I actually managed to construct a “death action matrix” in the 14 years since I came up with the formulation. Maybe it’s not such a good idea after all — yet it’s one that has stayed with me all these years. I will quote my essay here, hoping that my 2017 readers will find it thought-provoking and perhaps action-inducing.
On the afternoon of Saturday, April 21, 2001, while hanging out at the bookstore of the San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville, I came across Wayne Muller’s How Then, Shall We Live?: Four Simple Questions That Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of Our Lives by Wayne Muller. For whatever reason, one question stood above the others, riveting my attention for the rest of my day-long retreat. That question was How shall I live, knowing I will die? The other three questions (Who am I? What do I love? What is my gift to the family on the earth?) are undoubtedly significant and weighty ones — but they just didn’t speak immediately to my situation. I suppose that I wasn’t surprised by those questions whereas I had honestly never seriously asked myself How shall I live, knowing I will die?
Always a sucker for a good question, especially a profound and new one, I formulated a methodology for tackling How shall I live, knowing I will die? To make the question more concrete — and therefore more susceptible to my type of analysis — I supposed that I knew exactly how much time I had to live and asked how would I then live the rest of those days. I tried to be more specific and made that time period one of the following: a day, a week, a month, 6 months, a year, two years, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 70 years. To help me think about what I was going to do given that I was going to live another day or another 20 years, I turned to the list of life roles I was carrying around in my head as a way of partitioning my life at any given time.
I thus converted the question How shall I live, knowing I will die? to a series of questions of the form “If I knew I had only X (time period) left, what would I do in life role Y?” Some examples were: “If I knew I had only a week left to live, what I would do as a son?” and “If I knew I had only two more years to live, what I would do as a board member of Westminster House?” I organized my questions into a two dimensional matrix (with time-to-death on one axis and my life roles on the other)– a spreadsheet that I fondly called a “death action matrix”.
The answers I came up with that day were dramatic, deep, and revealing — and flowed directly out of the breakdown of the question. The prospect of death — even hypothetical death — turns out to be acidly clarifying. If I have little time left to live, most of what preoccupies me and seems so important would instantly be reduced to nothingness. I loveed my work profoundly, but when I asked myself the question “f I have a week to live, what would I do with my job?”, I answered without hesitation that I wouldn’t be spending any time on my favorite project. I would, however, want to say good-bye to my co-workers. Since I was quickly axing various roles I played for cases of a short life expectancy (it’s easy to quit my beloved committees when I think I’m going to die in a month!), I was intrigued by the question “how much time do I assume to have in this life (implicitly, most likely) to make a certain activity “worth my time”? For example, how many years would I want to have left for me to consider getting married or having children? If I knew that death was impending for me, would I stop blogging?
As I looked at the answers on my death action matrix spreadsheet, a central theme emerged — the most important thing in my life, in the face of death, was being at peace with the prospect of meeting my God, Judge, and Maker and letting my family and close friends know how much I loved them. I would add today that I also want to know how much I was loved. The question that raised by my matrix were “Do those close to me know how much I love them? And how do I let them know?”
In spite of the insights that came forth that day, I was too easily sidetracked by the realization that the central assumption of my exercise was merely hypothetical. Most of use do not know the exact day we will die. Furthermore, death is usually not like getting on a plane at a pre-assigned time, leaving us active to the very moment of departure. I kept pondering how I could sustain a life lived a daily intensity that I imagined that imminent death would prompt. Funny, how I don’t wonder about that point any more.
Given my own analysis, I continued to wonder a lot about how others would answer the question How shall I live, knowing I will die? On that grim morning of September 11 — five months later — I got a partial answer when I learned about the many last-minute love-filled emails or phone calls to husbands, wives, children, friends, or mothers that poured forth from those who knew they were at their end. Few of those who died that day would have parsed the question of how to live into a two-dimensional matrix, but it seems that nearly all of us need to love and be loved as we confront our own death.