Maximizing a maxim

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One of the aphorisms I’ve been partial to since childhood says a person should “live each day as if it were your last.”

Though I’ve liked and remembered the maxim, I only recently found myself wondering what it really means. Perhaps getting older (and attending more funerals) has started to make the concept more thought provoking to me.

On first blush, it sounds something like another popular saying: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” After all, if we know tomorrow really is our last day on Earth, we might try to see how many pleasurable experiences we can cram into those last 24 hours.

While that could be a reasonable approach to a terminal diagnosis with a firm 24-hour countdown, it does raise the question of how reasonable an approach it would be as a plan for daily life.

If each day we devoted ourselves to a round-the-clock effort at fulfilling (and expanding) our bucket list, we’d soon be worn out and poor, out of a job, and probably bereft of friends and family (unless, perhaps, we were to invite a different friend or family member to accompany us on each of our adventures). Still, very few would have the resources or stamina to keep this up for long.

So, if the lesson of “live each day as if it were your last” can’t really be to spend every day having the most pleasurable personal experiences, perhaps the phrase means something completely different.

Maybe it impels us to devote ourselves intensely to doing as many good deeds for others as possible — for this day could be our last chance to (choose one or more): repent, give to charity, return favors, make up for all the time we wasted, make up to all the people we’ve wronged, earn a decent epitaph, etc.

This might well be considered a worthwhile use of one’s last day. It might indeed even be a more popular choice than the selfish one we first contemplated.

But would it be any more reasonable as an approach to daily life? We might treat each day as our last chance for “doing good,” but the more days we spent in this fashion, the more we might start to wonder: When are we going to start “doing well,” too?

How might those of us who are workaholics interpret the precept? OMG! Only one day left to complete all the projects, organize the piles, clean out the in box, file away the reports, or at very least, set things in order for those to come after.

Believe it or not, my own dear wife, the associate publisher of the Beacon, admitted sheepishly that those were some of her first thoughts when I asker her to interpret the expression.

She’s really not a workaholic. But she’s incredibly responsible (and considerably compulsive), and since she’s handled the Beacon’s billing and books for 20+ years, all the inevitable loose ends tend to weigh heavily on her.

Still, she was well aware that this would be no way to live every day while waiting for one’s last breath. In fact, she said, she’d probably be more likely to do the polar opposite of her first reaction and devote her last day to spending time with family and friends.

This might be a fine way indeed to focus attention on something both meaningful and pleasant on one’s last day — giving voice to all the deepest things we feel and think, but seldom express; drawing close those who mean the most to us; reaching out to those we’ve perhaps ignored, or scared off, or stopped speaking to.

But if there ever were a prescription for

one’s last day that did not lend itself to ongoing practice, it would be this. Those we love couldn’t take this kind of perpetual closeness any more than those we once sent packing! Following this path day after day would not only wear you out, but also everyone you ever knew!

Ironically, the one activity most people would probably never do on their last day is spend time exercising — the very thing that, doctors tell us, has the greatest chance of extending our longevity. If we really knew this would be our last day, what would be the point?

But if we made a habit of not exercising, our lives would be considerably shorter and, probably, far less pleasant given the illnesses and troubles brought on by a sedentary lifestyle.

So where does that leave us? Seems to me the underlying lesson of living each day as if it were our last is that we should live a balanced life: We should strive to be good to others, devote some concerted effort to our work, show some love to our friends and family, get some exercise, and be sure to enjoy ourselves a bit, too.

I’m glad I took some time today to think about it.

Please feel free to share with us your thoughts on this topic, or any other. Email or write to Letters to the Editor, The Beacon, P.O. Box 2227, Silver Spring, MD 20915-2227.