I found this in an old notebook, copied from this article, which later became a book. I was reminded of it yesterday when I saw a twitter thread by a pediatrician who works with terminal patients in palliative care. He asked the dying kids for the opposite of regrets: “what they had enjoyed in life, and what gave it meaning.” His summary:
Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with your family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them.
These are the things these kids wished they could’ve done more. The rest is details.
Oh… and eat ice-cream.
When I was re-reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning last month, I was struck by his emphasis on imagination: how prisoners hold on by conjuring images of their loved ones, and how a patient can more easily sort out her decisions by pretending she’s lying on her death bed, looking back at her life: “Viewing her life as if from her deathbed, she had suddenly been able to see a meaning in it, a meaning which even included all her sufferings.”
The great poets and philosophers all know that death is what gives life meaning. (Montaigne: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”) To check in with death is to check in with life. (This is why I like to read obituaries—they are near-death experiences for cowards.) As Ghost Dog reads aloud from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure: The Book of The Samurai:
Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.
Meditation upon death need not be serious. A favorite little book of mine is Japanese Death Poems, a collection of jisei, or death poems, written by Zen monks and haiku poets. It’s funny how many are light-hearted, like Moriya Sen’an’s, from 1838:
Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
the cask will leak.
I know I am dying
But why not keep flowering
As long as I can
From my cut stem?
The weird thing about being in what is, statistically, the middle of your life is that you have to simultaneously live as if there is no tomorrow and live as if there will be a thousand tomorrows. It never hurts to do a little deathbed check. We’re all headed there sooner or later…