If I knew today would be my last day alive, what would I do? Well, that depends a hell of a lot on why it is my last day alive. What exactly is it that is threatening to kill me? Am I comatose in a hospital bed? If so, I should live each day sleeping in bed. Not too aspirational. Will I be hung tomorrow at dawn? Then I should live each trying to escape from my prison. Hmm, I could go deep with that metaphor. So let’s say I knew I would die at exactly 7AM tomorrow morning because I could see the future and all past visions had been accurate. Well then, like any mortal in any such story, I would spend the day trying to avoid the prophesied outcome.
OK, I know, I’m not playing along with the thought experiment. But I really need to know more before I can answer your question. When did I first learn the date of my death? Have I been preparing for years? If I’ve had a lot of time, then I’ve probably already tied up loose ends, passed along unsolicited wisdom to awkward recipients, guilted others into taking over my projects, and published some nonsense book about the beauty of transience. Also, if I knew my death day, I’d try to spite the prophesy (or whatever it was) by dying early. I like my agency.
One thing is for sure. If I knew today were my last day on Earth, I sure as hell would not spend it working, doing my taxes, worrying about social conventions, or following the law. I also wouldn’t spend it browsing social media, playing computer games or reading books. I doubt I would do much at all. Most likely, I’d spend it feeling very sorry for myself while hiding from well-wishers in a nook under the stairs.
So is there anything of merit in this advice? Perhaps the real point is that we should always be ready to die. Keep your browsing history clear, burn incriminating letters regularly, keep your house in order, have plans for your projects to be passed on (or die with you gracefully), keep spilling your thoughts onto paper, take time to talk to people and smell the Ponderosa pines before the end. Maybe also don’t take the grind too seriously, even if it is necessary for a time. Don’t let social conventions make your life dull. Don’t waste time on vacuous things. And remember, as the voice of Nightvale says, “Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you”.
Still, the phrase, “live each day as if it were your last”, is shit advice. Rather, we should say, “Prepare to die!”.
But even this is not quite right. One thing I would NEVER do on my last day is start a new project. Preparation for death involves wrapping things up. We should work towards finishing things and weaning the world off our assistance. But the converse of that is the beginning of new things. Life is both preparation for death and preparation for future life. The beginnings and endings.