Live each day as if it were your last. Is that wise? I’ve always been drawn by the advice, but I’ve never actually figured out how to follow it. And yet, as I’m getting older, I find myself following it more in a way. Let me explain.
First, why was I drawn to it? I was drawn to it both personally and intellectually. Personally, I’ve been drawn to the advice to “live for the moment” because I’m a fairly anxious person and I tend to be anxious about things that I shouldn’t be anxious about, by my own sense of what matters. I worry far too much about other people (even people I don’t like or respect) approving of my actions. I worry about living up to absurdly high and unforgiving standards. If I could live one day as if it were my last, I don’t think I would spend it worrying about whether the wording of my email offended someone I barely know.
Intellectually, I have a theory that wisdom involves being able to put things in perspective, by which I mean that wise people are able to align their emotions and actions with what really matters to them. Wise people don’t sweat the small stuff, they don’t obsess over trivialities, but they aren’t Stoics either: they grieve important losses, they cry about things that matter and feel genuine joy about significant things that are going well. I think this is an important feature of wisdom, because wisdom is the virtue that’s supposed to be key to managing to live a good human life. Wise people are supposed to know what matters in general, and they’re supposed to have some specific practical understanding about how to act, given what matters. That’s more or less how Aristotle thought of practical wisdom or phronesis. It is good deliberation about practical concerns. It includes knowledge or understanding of the right goals (or “ends”) in human life and the reasoning ability that allows the wise person to apply this knowledge to decide what to do.
So far, that view of wisdom emphasises knowledge, understanding, and reasoning. Aristotle was wise to the fact that these cognitive elements wouldn’t be enough; he thought we also needed the ability to regulate our emotions and motivations to bring them in line with our understanding of what matters. And we know now that human psychology is full of evolved tendencies that push and pull us in directions that were once adaptive (for example, toward paying a lot of attention to the risks of bad things happening) but are not necessarily good for us anymore. Moreover, emotions are often crucial for understanding what matters, and there are other psychological forces that can mislead us. Rumination and catastrophising are patterns of thought that provide input to reasoning, and unless we are in a real crisis, these patterns also distract us from what matters. Knowing what matters isn’t enough for wisdom. We also need to be able to walk the walk, to listen to our emotions when they have something to say, and to be able to change our patterns of thought when they’re leading us nowhere.
This kind of mental flexibility — the capacity to attend to what really matters and to change tack when we are emotionally or cognitively stuck – is what I call perspective. To return to the advice at the start of this essay, the person who lives each day as if it were her last does seem to have more perspective than most (and certainly more than I have). If you live each day as if it were your last, you won’t obsess about trivial inconveniences or ruminate about small affronts to your ego. If your time is limited, you’ll focus on what matters. Or, in any case, I think that’s the point of the adage.
And yet … While it is true that living each day as if it were your last will result in less rumination about trivialities, and it may focus your attention on some things that really matter, it’s not clear that this point of view will do justice to everything that matters. After all, many of the things that matter take planning and commitment. If I were really going to die in a week, I would not spend that week writing this essay, preparing for next weeks’ classes, or practising my ukulele. I would spend it with my husband, my friends, and making phone calls to as many of the people I love as I possibly could. I would probably eat cheesecake for breakfast, and I would absolutely not worry about drinking too much wine. These relationships are, of course, extremely important to my well-being, and the pleasures of cheesecake and wine are not bad either. But, if I think about it, writing this essay is at least as important to me as eating cheesecake, and I don’t think that my job is trivial. So there’s something funny about the advice.
In her book Doing Valuable Time: The Present, the Future, and Meaningful Living, the philosopher Cheshire Calhoun distinguishes four different ways we can spend our time. In “primary spending” we spend time doing the things we take to be worth doing for their own sakes, for example, just hanging out talking with friends. “Entailed spending” is the time we spend doing things that are merely instrumental to our valued ends, such as grocery shopping, commuting, or updating software. “Norm required” spending is what we do to follow various norms (moral, legal, and so on), and filler spending “is what we do while waiting, or when we’re too tired or ill or unmotivated to do much of anything else …” – think playing online games, watching cat videos, or whatever else you waste your time on.
Calhoun argues that the meaningfulness of our lives is determined by how much primary spending we do. If I really were to live each day as if it were my last, I think I would do a lot of primary spending, and perhaps this would make my life more meaningful and better. But I would also shun entailed spending, even though some entailed spending might be worth it, and this could make my life less good overall if I indeed live to see another day. For example, there are many things I do as a teacher that are merely instrumental, entailed spending. The part of teaching I value is communicating ideas to students and helping them learn. Making pdfs of readings, photocopying a syllabus, submitting grades, filling out paperwork for various university entities that require knowing this or that about my course, are things that I have to do, as a teacher, but not things I think are valuable in themselves. If it were my last day on earth, I would do none of those things, but if I never do those things, I will lose the opportunity to teach, which is something I value very highly.
To be sure, Calhoun does not think we should shun all entailed spending. My point is to use her categories to make a point: “live for the moment” suggests avoiding entailed spending in favour of primary spending. Why would you do things that have purely instrumental value if you won’t be around to achieve what those things are instrumental to? And yet some entailed spending is crucial for very valuable goals. Teaching isn’t the only example. Many goals require long term planning and multiple steps, not all of which are themselves valuable. If you want to run a marathon, you need to buy shoes and find good places to train. If you want to learn a musical instrument, you have to procure one, find a teacher, transport yourself to lessons. If you want to learn to cook Italian food, you have to get a cookbook or look online for recipes, go grocery shopping, grow your own tomatoes. For most of us, there are things we value that require (or entail) or doing things that we don’t care for. These entailed expenditures of time don’t make too much sense if this is your last day, but they make a lot of sense given that most of us almost certainly have many more days to come.
If we live each day as if it were our last, we’ll fail to accomplish some very valuable things. That doesn’t seem wise. At the very least, we can’t take the “last day” perspective all the time. But isn’t it sometimes a good perspective to have? I said earlier that despite my scepticism about the advice to “live each day as if it were your last”, I have come to think there’s something to it. When I turned 50, I thought to myself that it was pretty much beyond doubt that I was in the second half of my life. With more time behind me than ahead, “live for the moment” took on a new urgency, because some of the ways I was spending my time were positively stupid. Wondering how you would go about living your life if death were imminent can be a useful short-term perspective, one you take to shake yourself out of stupidity.
This idea that the “last day” perspective might be a useful crutch for the short-term reminds us that part of wisdom is being able to shift your perspective. I said earlier that perspective involves the capacity to attend to what really matters and to change tack when we are emotionally or cognitively stuck. We can be obsessed with achieving a goal that’s not actually very important, or we can be stuck in a reflective mode and disengaged with life. The “last day” perspective is good medicine for these kinds of ruts: you shouldn’t spend your last day ruminating over something you don’t think matters and you shouldn’t spend it reflecting on whether your goals really are as important as you thought. It’s just that “last day” isn’t the way to think once you’re out of the rut.
If “live each day as if it were your last” is just one useful perspective among many, a tool for living rather than the solution to the problem of living, what are the other perspectives we can take? What other tools of this kind do we have?
“Live for the moment” is yet another recommended perspective, which sounds a bit like “live each day as if it were your last” (and, indeed, it’s sometimes followed by “for tomorrow you may die”). It’s different, however, in that it seems to recommend attending to the interest of whatever it is we’re doing (whether it’s primary spending or something else). You can live for the moment while you do your weekly grocery shopping, buy shoes, or commute to work, even though these aren’t things you’d do if this were your last day. This is a useful perspective, too, for the times that we feel disengaged, unmotivated, or sad. Trying to see the beauty or the interest in everyday things can be a helpful exercise. But it’s also a lot of pressure, unless you’re a Zen master or you have regular access to marijuana.
Is living for the moment a reasonable goal for how we should always look at our lives? Isn’t being distracted sometimes reasonable? Why not skim the headlines while you’re sitting outside on a beautiful day waiting for someone? Why not talk on the phone to a distant friend while you walk your dog? You can’t be in two moments at once, but not every attempt at multi-tasking makes our lives worse. If you’re into mediating and living for the moment, I am not trying to talk you out of it; rather, my point is that these are perspectives that are useful for some people sometimes, but they aren’t necessarily the solution to the problem of living.
Apparently, Gandhi said “live each day as if it were your last; learn as if you will live forever”. That’s actually rather wise, because it recognises that there are things of value we cannot achieve if we limit ourselves to the current moment. Based on the reflections about long term goals and entailed spending, I might suggest adding “and pursue your valuable goals as if you will live another 5-10 years”. But in addition to lacking in pithiness these pieces of advice seem to just put different perspectives together: see life from the point of view of your “last day”, but also from the point of view of the Universe, and from a normal goal-seeking human’s point of view.
Wisdom probably does require shifting between these different ways of looking at things; these are tools to be used in conjunction with each other. The wise person knows that to live well we need to think about life in different ways at different times: sometimes we need to be focused on the moment so that we don’t miss the interest of what we experience, sometimes we need to broaden our horizons and think about how our long terms goals may help make the world a better place, sometimes we need to pretend that life is shorter than it is in order to remember that some things aren’t worth fussing over, and sometimes we need to fuss over things we wouldn’t fuss over if this really were our last day on earth.
It also could be there are individual differences in which perspectives it makes sense to try to cultivate, and which to spend less time occupying. We tend to think that there’s one way to be virtuous, one way to hit the mark, though there are many ways to go wrong. But there’s reason to think this isn’t true, at least about the practice of wisdom. Personally, the “live each day as if it were your last” perspective inclines me to a certain amount of selfishness. If I’m going to die tomorrow, I want to have some fun! It isn’t just that I’m a selfish person (I don’t think I’m particularly selfish, though I’m also no saint); it’s also a reflection of the fact that I don’t think I have the power to help many people in a day. But this perspective might make some people more altruistic; some might think “on my last day, at least let me leave a legacy of good deeds”. Some people find reflecting on their own absolute insignificance in the grand scheme of things to be quite depressing; it’s a classic cause of existential crisis. But others, like me, find this perspective very comforting: in the grand scheme of things, it can’t matter that much if I screw something up or don’t live up to some standards or other. These examples suggest that which shift in perspective helps a person get her thoughts, feelings, and actions on track in terms of what really matters may be different from person to person. All wise people know how to get themselves back on track, but this may not look the same for everyone.
As for me, it’s highly likely that this is not my last day and that I have quite a few more, but I feel more aware now that the last day is coming and I don’t want to squander the days between now and then. Given my inclinations, one thing I find it helpful to say to myself is “don’t waste the rest of your limited time on this earth!” That’s good advice, and a good perspective to have. And yet… I’m not going to stop doing Sudoku.