Are you ready to die today?
NOV 19 — Recently I met a best-selling author who is just a few years older than I am. Over lunch, the conversation drifted to the writing process, and he confessed how increasingly weary he was with all the writing, re-writing and fine-tuning that, at one point, he just stopped and pushed the draft to his editor to be done with it. Such relief, he said, that it was finished.
As we parted ways, he remarked that writing the book was one of the things he wanted to do before he died, so that’s one off his bucket list.
I waved goodbye and then walked back to my office, pondering my own bucket list, which also includes writing a book. I haven’t crossed anything off mine for years, and I haven’t started on that novel in earnest.
That night, I wondered if I’ll be crossing anything off my bucket list in the near future. Or ever.
As a boy I was fascinated by the subject of death, how everyone will die in the end, despite everything we can and will achieve in life. It still fascinates me.
Our time is limited, and no one knows when they’ll hit a brick wall and go flat on the ECG. I remember concluding at some point — feels corny today, of course, but a revelation to a pre-puberty kid — that we must use what years we get as wisely as we can, with as much meaning as we can.
I guess from that formed a habit of hastiness that stuck with me a while. But my fascination didn’t end there. After a while I wondered further; how many years do we really get from our total lifespan?
It’s easy to overestimate how much time we have to live. Consider a 20-year-old man, entering the prime of his life, with another 40 years before he pushes up daisies. Forty years is plenty, it seems, to accomplish a lot of things as his legacy. What we often forget is that we don’t get all of those 40 years to do what we want.
In 24 hours a day, we sleep on average a third of the time, more if you’re the type who sleeps up to nine hours to be fully recharged. With that out of the way we also take some time for maintenance — singing sessions in the shower, cooking and eating, doing dishes, cleaning the house, washing the car, buying groceries and a million other things. If you work around KL, maybe you spend an hour or even two in transit on weekdays.
Even logging into my online banking account takes three seconds of waiting as I’m reminded again and again of the same security tips. It all adds up to most of our day, and after all these overheads, how much do we have left?
Not enough, it feels like. Forty years of living is not 40 years of pursuing dreams full-time, far from it. And still we procrastinate, we wait, we stack our bucket list items on the KIV tray as we close our eyes each night to another day spent and gone. Tomorrow, we’d say, and when tomorrow becomes today we’d say tomorrow again.
It’s always tomorrow, never today. Then days become weeks and grow into years that keep passing. Tomorrow turns into a habit. As the clock ticks our bucket list grows so much that whenever we snap out of it and try to do something about it, we find it overwhelming, not knowing where to even begin.
At that point it’s so easy to say “later”, and wait for the “right moment.” Getting over the inertia of idleness, getting started, is the biggest, and sometimes only, hurdle. It scares us. And we run from that fear into the welcoming embrace of tomorrow. Thomas Edison once said that if we did the things we’re capable of, we’d astound ourselves. But therein lies the catch, eh? If. Tomorrow’s best friend.
Eventually, the next tomorrow becomes one too many, and a dream becomes impossible. We cross out an item in our bucket list not because we did it, but because we can no longer do it. How many doors have we closed because we waited too long? How many dreams given up because we never did anything to pursue them?
That is, if there even is a tomorrow.
Sometimes we forget that tomorrow might not come, and it’s amazing how often we forget. Deep down we don’t quite believe death will happen to us. Dying is what happens to other people, just them and not us.
And that perception of self-immortality is ingrained in how we think. According to psychologist and author of “The Willpower Instinct” Kelly McGonigal, we don’t think of ourselves now the same way we do our future selves. Brain scans show that different brain regions activate when we think about ourselves and other people respectively. They also show that when we think of our future selves, the regions activating are the same that activate when we think of another person.
To our brain, our subconscious, our future selves are strangers. Our future selves are not us; they are somehow different, with more willpower, more motivation to relentlessly pursue what we can’t bring ourselves to do today. Somehow less lazy, less inclined to procrastinate and wait, eager to put in the extra effort to go above and beyond.
Sure, we might think, I can write 1,000 words tomorrow to kickstart the novel, and an extra 1,000 to make up for not writing today, so today I’ll kick back and watch five movies, have a break.
Then tomorrow comes and we’re still the same person, too obdurate in idleness to start writing more than 100 (or at all), and the cycle of tomorrows continues. Eventually we see that point of no return passing by our side window as we drive on, and we realise that we missed our exit on the bucket list highway. And that we can’t turn back.
And then tomorrow becomes never for yet another list item, and the moment we wake up and realise it, regret stays forever. You only live once, after all, and it’s something we should remind ourselves every day.
I typed 1,000 words last weekend of my novel. And I’m typing more. How are you doing with your bucket list?
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.