Last month I traveled to New York with my ten year old daughter, Scarlett, where we visited the World Trade Center 9/11 museum. It was a sobering reminder of that dreadful day over twenty years ago. Throughout the exhibit were numerous personal stories of the men and women who perished, told by the loved ones they had left behind. Spanning a large wall was a piece of art surrounding a quote from Virgil, “No Day Shall Erase You From The Memory of Time.” I’m guessing that of the nearly three-thousand people who lost their lives, not one of them woke up that morning with the expectation that that day would be their last. I recently heard a statistic that 10-20% of deaths are unexpected. That number blows me away. 

Recently I found out that a friend of mine received a devastating diagnosis that will ultimately lead to his death. While we are not close friends, I have had a number of interactions with him that showed what a genuinely good human being he is. It makes me genuinely sad that the world is losing a great man. I’ve thought often of the uncertainty he faces.

Both of these experiences have caused me to question how I would confront my own mortality. What joys and successes would I celebrate? What regrets would haunt me? What things would I be able to remedy in my remaining time? What impact have I left on the world? The Stoic Philosophers implore us each to ponder often the phrase “Memento Mori,” – Remember Death. In doing so, we have the power to change life. 

In his book The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer teaches that death should be our greatest teacher. Our options are to let it teach us now, or wait until we are face to face with it and hope for the best. I’m sure if you were asked what you would do if you had a short time to live, you would probably focus on the people who mean the most to you. You would savor every moment together and do your best to show them the love you feel. You would assuredly let go of petty grievances and complaints. You probably wouldn’t spend much time mindlessly scrolling on your phone. I’m guessing you wouldn’t yell at your kids or find fault with your spouse. I bet you have a few things you wish you would have done differently. 

But what is keeping you from living with that type of purpose and meaning today? Do you take for granted that life keeps moving forward and the sun rises each day? According to Bronnie Ware, an Australian hospice worker, the number one regret of the dying is this: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself.”

Think about what your life might be like if you lived every moment full of love for the most important people. What keeps you from closing the gap between that ideal life and the life you are living now?

A few months ago I asked my wife, Hill, what she would change if she knew her life would end soon. She told me she wouldn’t change anything. I was of course skeptical, but chose not to share a couple of suggestions that were pretty clear to me (it has taken me too many painful experiences to learn to keep my suggestions to myself).

Unfortunately I could think of a number of things I would do differently. I’m saddened by the number of times I’ve yelled at my kids. I’m saddened by the number of times I’ve spoken unkindly to Hill. The thought that either of these types of interactions might be my last with them is too painful to even consider. So the alternative was to change the behavior, so there will never be a question of how I feel. I’m grateful for that insight as I considered death.

I invite you to choose something today that you will change to bring you closer to your ideal life – the life true to yourself.

After inviting us to contemplate death, Singer states, “How much love could you give the ones you love, knowing it would be the last time you get to be with them. Think about what it would be like if you lived like that every moment with everyone. Your life would be really different. You should contemplate this. Death is not a morbid thought. Death is the greatest teacher in all of life.”

If we figure out this secret, hopefully one day when asked what we would do differently when facing our mortality, we can all answer, “Nothing different.”