When

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Someone posed this question at my daughter’s post-high school graduation dinner:

If given the choice, would you rather know HOW you were going to die or WHEN you were going to die?

Now, before anyone piles on about the appropriateness of the timing of this particularly morbid question at that particularly hopeful event, you should know two things: 1. It was my daughter who posed the question. 2. We’re Irish.

And maybe it’s because of my cultural heritage (Irish sentimental/maudlin), or it could be my enneagram number (four), or maybe it’s my Meyers-Briggs (INFJ), but I’ve never minded a deep conversation about the important things, and it doesn’t get much more important than death.

Death focuses us, or at least it should. So many of us run from the idea or thought of death, as though it’s something you could ever outrun in the first place. We stay on the surface, allowing our distractions to carry us from day to day, year to year. We pursue goals, or we don’t. We dream and worry and plan. And all the while, there is that question mark lurking in the corner, that truth to which we turn our back and our faces.

Some day, this is going to end.

In the right context, that information is not sad, but helpful. In some ways, it’s like the graduation ceremony we were at just hours before. Things like high school and life are designed to end, and no one presumes they won’t. When it’s all said and done, you want to have used your time to tell your story well and with intention. Just think of the celebration and the speeches, the awards and the accolades. Think of the relationships and bonds that will have formed. Like the kids who decorate their graduation caps, imagine one short phrase or picture that will sum up the whole experience and how you’ll wear it on the crown of your head. Perhaps life is as simple and as difficult as living according to that motto.

In answering the question of whether you’d want to know ‘how’ or ‘when’, It seems to me that to know the way in which you will die might feel paralyzing. Maybe with that knowledge, you’d worry every time you got in a car, or ran a mile, or felt fatigued. That information might stop you from living your best life. But to know the ‘when’ would be life-giving, I think, and enable a person to plan and live well. You’d know the arc of your story. You’d never leave something unsaid, at least not permanently. You’d know when to spend and when to conserve energy and other resources. Maybe you’d worry less about the small things. Maybe you’d try something new. Maybe you’d wonder, think, and pray more about what comes after this.  Maybe you’d shift your priorities. Maybe you’d rebound from mistakes with more bounce and more perspective. Maybe.

And maybe we’re just supposed to do the best we can with every day we’re given. I know. But sometimes I’d like to know if this race I’m in is a sprint or a marathon, and how many hills or rest stops there are left along the course. It’s not something we get to know, and that’s by design and for our good, surely. All we have is today, to use the best we can. But there’s nothing stopping us from planning those graduation caps.

 

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