It was the summer of 1922, and a small paper in Paris known for it’s investigative news, city gossip and incisive editorials, was also known for posing a series of questions to its readers and encouraging celebrities and people of note to respond. This particular summer, it posed a notably insightful question.
The paper asked the following: It is unequivocally confirmed that the world will end in 48 hours, at least to such a degree that human life will no longer be even remotely close to current standards. You will not survive the cataclysm. What will you do for the next 48 hours?
One of the more famous responses at the time came from Marcel Proust, considered by many to be one of the finest novelist of all time. He responded by saying:
"I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness…”
Life, he emphasized, would become beautiful again as we embrace the reality of our own mortality. He then adds:
“[However] The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”
There is a pop song that comes on the radio from time to time, sung by that guy who was on American Idol, with a title and lyrics that say “Live Like We’re Dying.” When I first heard the lyrics, I was surprised that a pop song had taken on such a profound concept. To live like we’re dying is a radical notion, indeed. It’s “carpe diem” to a danceable beat.
Our human mind tends to want to carve out a normal life that is predictable and safe. We spend so much time setting things up so that we feel buffeted, insulated, and secure. In doing so, we quietly, discreetly, neglect our dreams and suffocate our passions. Our sense of security becomes our idol, and we worship at great expense.
But if something goes awry, our house of cards can tumble, and we realize in an instant that what we invested in for a sense of “security” was an illusion, a fool’s gold. The yogis call this “falling asleep,” or forgetfulness.
Martha Graham, perhaps the most influential modern dancer/teacher, reminds us that during our brief lives, we each have a gift to give, a unique expression, a vitality that is translated into action through us. In her famous quote to Agnus DeMille, she says that if we fail to give this “gift” it will be lost forever, and the world will suffer because of it.
There is much collateral damage from an unfulfilled life. When we opt to abstain from giving our unique expression to the world, it most certainly is a form of negligence. The negligence of allowing ourselves to fall into a pattern of normal, a pattern set by others with no real purpose but to anesthetize ourselves from the existential suffering of not knowing why we are here.
But when we do give this gift, there is a vitality that moves through us, which makes us more alive than others. It’s the radical notion of living fully alive, seeing life as a mystery to be lived, rather than a problem to be solved. As I recently mused, it helps to see that your soul is an experience, not a thing.
As I jumped in and asked myself this question - what would I do if I had just 48 hours left to live - and as friends began to share their stories on this topic as well, I realized that for so many of us, the first thing we do when faced with this type of cataclysm (at least mentally) is turn to love, being loved, being allowed to love another. Maybe it’s our mom, or our dad, that we think of. Maybe it’s that special “one” love got away, or our current significant other, or just the longing for love.
We might also realize that much of what we do to fill the hours is meaningless, not so much because the things themselves are meaningless, but because of our numbing mindset and relationship to them. When we become mindful, life awakens. As we spiral inward to recover and then give out our “gift”, paradoxically, the world around us becomes imbued with meaning, a vitality. It is in this space that we can more fully perceive the profound miracle of simply being alive.
So, perhaps you imagine you have just 48 hours to live. Sit in quiet contemplation and reflect on what this would mean to you. If so moved, write for 15 minutes on the subject. Pay attention to the urges that motivate you. As the poet Rumi says “Let yourself be silently drawn to the stronger pull of what you truly love.”