The question at the top of the page comes from Arthur C. Brooks, author of the recent book From Strength to Strength, Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. It’s something Brooks asks his students at the Harvard Business School to get their attention. He goes on to say:
When I tell my graduate students, who are mostly in their late 20s, to contemplate the fact that they have 50 or 60 Thanksgivings left, and 20 to 30 with their parents, they look pretty shocked.
Brooks has been asking himself the question “How many Thanksgivings do I have left?” While only 58, he estimates he may have as few as 8 holidays left, based on his family history. Brooks points out that “we avoid thinking realistically about the length of our lives and our time left, lulling us into the false belief that we have all the time in the world.” And the fact is, we don’t.
We make the mistake of thinking that “our time is limitless, so the decision of what to do in the next hour is not very important in the broad scheme of things.” Yet, it’s a mistake we don’t realize we are making until “we come face-to-face with the fact that time is up and it’s too late.” Most of us do not receive impending notice of our own demise.
Remember that everything you do could be for the last time.
On the Waking Up app, the author Sam Harris has a session that had special resonance with me and it relates to the subject today. It’s called “The Last Time” and starts like this:
I want you to take a moment to think about all the things in this life that you will experience for the last time. Of course, there will come a day when you die, and then everything will be done for the last time. But long before you die, you will cease to have certain experiences. Experiences that you surely take for granted now.
The subject matter may seem gloomy but think about this for a moment. Harris asks us, “If you are a parent (or grandparent), when is the last time your child (or grandchild) will sit on your lap as you read them a bedtime story? When is the last time you will tuck her or him into bed?” There is a last time for all important, recurring events in our life, including family gatherings at Thanksgiving, and we never know when that will be.
The funny thing is we often do things for the last time and it’s beyond our cognitive abilities to realize it. Harris talks about that last time he skied 15 years ago. On that day, when he took off his skis, he “was not even dimly aware of the possibility” it could be the last time he ever skied. Yet now it’s not certain. I can tell an almost identical tale about vacationing on Sanibel Island and I’m sure you have a similar story.
Harris echoes this sentiment, reminding us that “we have no assurance we will be here next year, next week, even tomorrow.” Yet we still often overlook the precious moments in our lives, even things as simple as sitting for a meal with our entire family around the dining room table. So how do we live our lives to their fullest knowing that we may not receive a clear signal that our end is near?
All we can do is be in each moment, right here, right now, starting today.
To paraphrase Harris, “when you know you do everything a finite number of times, it adds a specialness to the moments.” You begin to realize you never know when the “last time” of any activity or event with special meaning to you will occur. Harris advises us that:
Paying more attention can make everything seem more special. Attention is your true source of wealth, so pay a little more attention.
Let’s look at how that might play out in your own home over the Thanksgiving weekend and in the coming weeks. Are there certain daily occurrences that you are taking for granted? Do you need to (put your phone down and) be more in the moment? Can you take the following three actions?
- When you talk with someone, be fully present and really listen to them.
- Notice small acts, like someone washing the dishes or cleaning the house, and respond with gratitude.
- Be patient and kind even when others are not.
In Harris’s words, you need to “connect with your life.” There’s no better time to do this than now, while our families are gathered for the holidays. It’s at these times that our ability to connect with those closest to us is easiest and provides a sense of comfort and well-being for everyone involved.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!