Is living life like you'd die in six months actually a good idea?
October 8, 2017 11:00 AM   Subscribe

How does it feel to do everything you would do if you only had six months left to live? Do you feel "good" having done so? Did it disrupt your relationships? Did it tank your savings? Are they all they are advertised as? Looking for personal stories, articles, research, or anything else.

I'm going through a "personal mission statement" exercise and one of the steps was to think of everything I would do if I only had six months left to live. It took me a while to get past "Lose my shit every day" but I eventually came up with a list of things that indicate I would change my status quo.

I would tell people things that I've been holding back, because I don't want to offend them. I would share feelings that I've been holding back, because I don't want to risk them not reciprocating. I would try to "fix" my relationships with my family. I would live more lavishly.

But there are *good reasons* I don't do these things.

And so my question is - if anyone else has decided to do the things they would do if they only had six months left - did it work? Did it.... make life better? Or did it make things worse?

To avoid this becoming chat filter - Please don't share with me your advice or your thoughts unless they come from your direct experience trying to do these things. Or, indirect, if you had a friend interact with you like they had only six months left. Also, please share articles and blogs and things of that nature.
posted by rebent to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
if anyone else has decided to do the things they would do if they only had six months left - did it work? Did it.... make life better? Or did it make things worse?

around my thirtieth birthday, I came off a five year long (and brutally difficult and draining) creative project that, though not a complete failure, nevertheless left me feeling deeply unsatisfied. And with that dissatisfaction came a sense of not really having done much living through what are, for many, some of the best years of one's life.

So f*** it, I decided, I had money in the bank, I bought a plane ticket to London with little or no planning, and proceeded over the next three-five years to pretty much NOT have a plan. And so on.

Was this a smart and good call? Who knows. I'd probably have way more money. I probably would've bought some Vancouver real estate when it was still affordable and now be a millionaire, and thus retired, or about to be. And so on. But on the other hand, I wouldn't be here writing this if I hadn't made that call, with the friends and network and passions and everything-else I now have.

Hope this helps.
posted by philip-random at 11:23 AM on October 8 [6 favorites]

I live each day in direct awareness of impermanence and it has made me come fully alive. It took a little while to really sink in but the more I hold death as an advisor, the better my life is. I don't procrastinate. I say "I love you." I don't waste time on petty stuff. I mean, yeah, I do, but I do it consciously and I decide to do it. Everyone needs to waste time on petty stuff now and then. But really keeping death in mind gives me the perspective I need to stay awake. It fosters gratitude for what is present in my life, and gratitude is the thing that flavors life, the way salt brings out the umami and richness of food.

Impermanence and interdependence are two of the things I bear in mind as part of an awareness practice.

I would say that the advice to live as though you know your time is limited is a good one, not because you should mourn your life but because you should celebrate it, be aware of it while it's here, and make decisions you won't regret. Everything ends, and that's a good thing. But we are caught by surprise by endings so often, and so many people die with unfinished work.

I myself have never been tempted to tell people offensive things, but at the same time, I am less tolerant of keeping people in my life who aren't serving a positive purpose. Mostly, though, I get to se the humor in things. If death is really scary to you, maybe you could try thinking that you're going to move far away from all your friends and family in six months, and so you need to appreciate the time you have with them face to face before you move.
posted by janey47 at 11:25 AM on October 8 [24 favorites]

Well, my sister did something like that after she got laid off from a job and got a decent severance package. She and her husband moved to Costa Rica and lived cheaply on freelance work and savings. There had been quite a lot of turmoil in her life in the year or two prior, so she really needed the break.

As part of that, she did share a lot of stuff she hadn't previously, sort of like what you're talking about. As best I can tell it hasn't had any long term negative impact. If anything it was a positive experience, but not one I'd risk had I been in her shoes.

After finding the full freelance from Costa Rica life not paying the bills they ended up moving to the city where Georgia and I were living at the time and settling down a bit. Her husband managed to get some more consistent freelance gigs here since he had become available for more frequent face time. She tried a few more things for another year and ended up going back to her old profession, but in a different industry and better pay and has quickly risen through the ranks there. If nothing else, the experience seems to have cured her of the burnout she was experiencing and given her space to process the turmoil in her personal life.

The main risk that didn't materialize for her was trouble getting back into the workforce after the multi-year hiatus. I guess she was able to spin all the freelancing and side businesses as a positive thing. Not everyone can.
posted by wierdo at 11:30 AM on October 8

There are stories of people with terminal diseases who live much longer than doctors predicted, which might be a rich source of answers for your question. For example, the prepper who donated many barrels of food to Puerto Rico had a wife given one year to live, so they spent all their money on best care for her and a cruise, but then she lived eight years and he went broke. (See about 3/4 down the article here.)

Somewhat relatedly, although I don’t personally know anyone who lives their life with a specific “six months to live” mentality, I do have a very close friend who lives his life with a “would my five year old self be impressed by this life choice?” philosophy, which is sort of similar. He seems very happy. On the one hand, I don’t think he has any money saved, and I’m not sure how he would handle a major emergency. For example, when he moved to the city where we live, he didn’t have money for a bike, so just waited until one was abandoned in our neighborhood. He also used to mostly just wear handmedowns from friends who knew he didn’t have much, although I think his wife has stopped that practice. On the other hand, he has never had a boss and instead created his own business, is incredibly generous with his time to pretty much anyone he knows, plays sports and music whenever he wants because he sets his own work schedule, has the dog he always wanted, and eats ice cream for dinner when he feels like it. In other words, it works for him.
posted by alligatorpear at 11:32 AM on October 8 [7 favorites]

People I’ve known who’ve known they’re likely to die soon have done things like a low-complication vacation (such as a cruise), get visits from a lot of friends and family, but, mostly, they were too worn out from prior treatments and fairly quickly just too sick to do much. Hospice and home palliative care aren’t much fun, and dying slowly sucks.
posted by MattD at 11:54 AM on October 8 [10 favorites]

There's something very interesting to me in janey47's answer as opposed to your question. Her answer explicitly avoids a time horizon, instead focusing on impermanence. That's important. A time horizon of six months means you would have no need to make plans beyond those six months. That's kind of a big deal if you actually do have more than six months to live. Why would you try to be good at your job, for example? It's not like a promotion would matter to you. Heck, why even have a job? On a lighter note, when I was around 12 or 13, I used to get really confused at people who said to "live each day like it's your last", because if it's not your last, you wouldn't have any clean underwear for tomorrow, because who would do laundry on their last day? So yeah, the explicit time component is a hindrance, in my opinion. Instead, just be aware that any particular day could possibly be your last (so you'll want to do the things you want to do), and could possibly not (so you'll still have to be responsible). In stoicism, this is called negative visualization.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:10 PM on October 8 [26 favorites]

On a related note, I believe that too-short time horizons are a big part of the problem with regard to corporate irresponsibility and malfeasance. When you're only looking ahead to your next quarterly earnings report, you ignore anything beyond that deadline. When you're looking ahead 100 years, or 1,000, though, you make very different, more responsible decisions. I don't see any reason why this wouldn't also be true of people. So, to answer your title question, yes, I think living like you only have six months left is a bad idea.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:17 PM on October 8 [4 favorites]

I think it's more helpful to find some sort of balance between "right now is the only moment I am certain of, so I should try to get the most of it" with "if I live to 99 I'll want to enjoy that too."

Feed the 401K now, save money now, but also enjoy life now, so I'll be in good practice if I do make it to 99.
posted by bunderful at 12:24 PM on October 8 [7 favorites]

After I stopped being a caregiver full-time in 2012, I started taking an assessment of myself and my life. I realized that any day could be my last and I needed to start living it like that. I needed to start enjoying myself instead of just existing. It has taken some years to get to where I am now, which is the fruition of that original thought. I am no longer terrified to walk away from things and people that suck. I drop jobs when it is apparent they will remain a broken system even with intervention, I form friendships with as many different people as I like because they are fascinating and I learn from them all, I eat what I like in moderation and enjoy every morsel, I spend my money on things that bring me joy because you can't take it with you. I speak my mind. I do everything that used to scare me. I do my best at every task and try to learn as much as possible from it in the moment.

I have the much-loved 6-month finance buffer. I have my next year of tuition in an education account, separate from my bill accounts. I pay up all important bills 6 months in advance. Those are the things that reside out of my live-every-day-like-its-your-last sentiment. It has changed my relationships with family, where I have let go of a lot of old hurts and just exist right here with the relationships as they are currently. My boyfriend has been enjoying watching the process because he gets to see me living strongly as opposed to putting everything off for another day. I take the attitude of "If something happens, I will find a way to make it work. If disaster strikes, I will work out my next moves as I'm making them.".

I know I'm happier. I can legitimately say each night before I fall asleep that if I died and could take a look at my last day, I would be pleased with how things went.
posted by missh at 12:35 PM on October 8 [18 favorites]

Interesting question. My dad died suddenly when I was very young, so I have always had a sense of life's impermanence. I try to live by the Buddhist mantra "the glass is already broken," and enjoy and appreciate what I have, knowing that it could be gone at any second. (Of course, my level of success varies depending on a lot of factors, both internal and external.)

What also works for me is to try to honour creative and constructive impulses and opportunities, while resisting as many of the destructive urges that this sense of impermanence can bring about. So, looking at your questions, I would ask myself if those things I want to say to other people are ultimately kind, true, necessary, etc., and whether or not they could benefit that person in the long run. Or, are they just things I want to get off my chest or ways I want to bring the person down a peg? In the case of sharing feelings, and fixing things with family, I'd look at what steps I could reasonably take without too much risk and take those. When it comes to living more lavishly, I'd break that down, and prioritize some of the experiences I want, e.g. could I live in a nicer but smaller apartment in a more convenient neighbourhood? Could I spend time instead of money on making a better home, cooking better meals etc.?

A lot of this comes down to setting priorities, and deciding where you want your time, energy, and money to go.
posted by rpfields at 12:39 PM on October 8 [3 favorites]

The book Dharma Punx by Noah Levine has a chapter or two where he describes trying out his father's practice of living like you have a year left. Might be helpful and it's a good read regardless.
posted by doctord at 1:55 PM on October 8

Living like you've got six months to live would result in some rather reckless, short-term decisions, i.e., "I'm going to not bother to exercise and spend money the way I want!". It might be a better idea to make decisions by asking what you'll be glad you did when you're eighty, i.e., "Yes to yoga and responsible financial planning, but also yes to things like travel and spending time with loved ones and work/life balance, because I won't be young forever."
posted by orange swan at 1:57 PM on October 8 [2 favorites]

I can't write too much about this because it's an emotional topic for me, but: my best friend has a terminal diagnosis. She has lasted longer than expected, but doesn't have long. She has focused entirely zero on any "bucket list" items. People in conflict or with whom she had "unfinished business"? Out of her life entirely. Her life is too precious to waste on that, or to spend her limited energy on. She has traveled, she has spent as much time as possible with her true loved ones, but in many ways that is the normal, quotidien stuff, not anything objectively "special." On a good day she drives her kid to school herself, and revels in it. I can't write more but you get the picture.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:09 PM on October 8 [12 favorites]

I saw a wonderful performance of "Our Town" in NYC a few years ago, and this scene in particular stuck with me. Partially because of the way it was staged, but also because it made me ask myself - if I arbitrarily was allowed to relive this one day in my life, after I was already a ghost - how would I feel about the way I lived it? Did I take some time to relish the feeling of being alive? Did I connect with anyone - did I slow down even for a moment, in order to not take the day for granted?

It's helped me to appreciate my life a lot more.
posted by egeanin at 2:33 PM on October 8 [4 favorites]

Watching not one but two people go from 'cancer but ok' to 'cancer and cancel Christmas', they didn't do any 'bucket list' stuff, they didn't live lavishly, and they didn't go around saying 'well here's what I really think I don't care if you're offended' (if anything, they let go of old grudges entirely). They spent time quietly with their friends and families.

I don't know where this 'caviar, cocaine and callouts' trope about dying came from, but in my experience it's bullshit. Maybe if somebody didn't have family or friends, but I imagine they'd spend the whole time wiping coke off their nose and wishing they had loved ones to talk to instead.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:43 PM on October 8 [5 favorites]

Also I just want to add: people who legit have 6 months to live are sick in ways that make this whole "go skydiving and climb a mountain and bet it all on black and finally visit Argentina and kiss a random stranger" thing very difficult to accomplish. They're probably in treatment -- even if it's not going to save them -- to make the six months bearable. They may be on heavy painkillers, and even those heavy painkillers may not make their daily life pain-free. Parts of their body are not working, in deeply unpleasant ways. I'm talking bowels. I'm talking lymphedema. I'm talking about the inability to breathe freely. Eat freely. They're suffering.

It ain't like the movies.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:37 PM on October 8 [11 favorites]

I had a life-threatening illness a few years ago, and as some people suggested above, being uncertain about your future is often more an experience of demoralization than an epiphany about how to live in the moment. That said, I think there's some value in mental exercises like this.

But I suggest flipping the exercise around a bit, particularly because you're feeling uneasy about the answers you came up with. Rather than imagining you have 6 months to live, what if the life you're living now and the future you're expecting to have was suddenly and unexpectedly taken out of your reach? Maybe you're marooned on an island with slim chances of rescue, or locked away in a cell somewhere. But one day you might get rescued or set free.

What day-to-day experiences are you yearning to get back to? What do you wish you'd done more of while you had the chance? What didn't you appreciate enough? What hopes and dreams didn't you get to realize, that you wish you'd get a second chance at? I think those sorts of questions might help you figure out your priorities better than imagining a life without long-term consequences.
posted by space snail at 6:28 PM on October 8 [10 favorites]

I know there's no way to remember every single day, but I don't like it when I find I've had day after day of nothing particularly memorable. When I realize I'm in a rut like that I try to make sure every day has something in it worth remembering. Doesn't have to be out-of-this-world amazing - could be reading something great, talking to someone I care about, doing something I find worthwhile and satisfying which could be re-organizing my sock drawer to be honest.
posted by bunderful at 6:39 PM on October 8 [1 favorite]

I lost my first child and that has gradually moved me through a few periods adjacent to what you're asking, including:
- a few months of living like the apocalypse actually happened, so I did nothing a lot (I didn't do chores, but I also didn't do joy) which is how I imagine actual terminal diagnoses might feel - like a wall of grief
- a few years of living in utter fear of further loss
- a gradual desire to appreciate time now not by doing dramatic things but just...noticing the joy as it happens

Right now I'm in a weird phase where I am kind of determined to live my life in a way where if I had 6 months to live, I would *mostly* do exactly what I am doing.
(See also: midlife crisis)

It turns out that for me this has very little to do with bucket list items and very much has to do with having time to chat with a lonely neighbour or in fact leave a job that was just fine but not quite me for a lesser-paying, less prestigious one that delivers more time for my life and is more what I want to do Now. It's about washing the lentils in a calm way and not rushing it swearing cause there's a meeting at 8:30 that is stressful.

I will say I am less "corporate me" (strategic, inoffensive) and more me. But this is less about how I treat others and more about telling my truth, like I changed jobs in part because I saw Wonder Woman. Crazy in some ways but true...I had to stop listening to people telling me we can't save everyone in this war and just walk across no mans land and...the jury is out but the last month has been *amazing*.

There are some slightly airy-fairy books on this but I'll bring them up anyway. One is books by SARK (I actually did a workshop with her years ago) and I also like Natalie Goldberg's memoir-y books.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:59 PM on October 8 [9 favorites]

I've spent the last few years living totally uncertain about my future -- basically ready to up and move anywhere to get a job in my sector, and it resulted in not knowing what I would be doing or where I'd be living more than a month or two in the future. This is obviously not a terminal diagnosis, but what it taught me is impermanence sucks. I'm fucked in the head because of it. When I finally do have a job and can settle and afford it, I'm going to need therapy, because I've spent years terrified of planning and feeling unmoored and uncertain.

I have gotten quite good at catching the golden moments. My apartment right now is beautiful, and I'll just sit and appreciate it, or the look of the sun through the trees, or this thing or that thing. I suppose I've learned to catch joy where I can, but I would have been quite okay learning that while having some kind of consistency in my life. I *did* start to learn it when things were consistent and steady and I could trust where I'd be living and working.

I'm also really good at kicking people out of my life if they're a drain on me, fwiw. And all of this is kind of leading me towards...I think you have a good aim, but I think the metaphor you're using isn't a good one in the long term. I'd look more to mindfulness and seeking out whatever it is you want to cultivate in yourself. That is, frankly, what's gotten me *through* this period of turmoil.
posted by kalimac at 7:30 PM on October 8 [3 favorites]

I have a type of cancer that’s considered incurable. My projected life expectancy is in years, not months, and some people live for decades, so I don’t fall into the six months to live category, but I am confronting my mortality in a way I wasn’t before. Frankly, the thing I feel the most urgency about is downsizing so I don’t leave my kids with a big mess. That’s also the thing that is most in my control. Sure, it would be great to travel the world and I do want to live closer to my children, but making that kind of stuff happen takes time and money. And if you’re in the US, you still have to figure out how to keep your health insurance even if you only have six months. Maybe I’m taking the exercise too literally, but I’m not sure how much most people can realistically change their lives with little warning. Or maybe I’m just too cautious.
posted by FencingGal at 7:31 PM on October 8 [9 favorites]

I listened to a podcast about this a couple of days ago - it's act two of the very first This American Life episode
posted by Wantok at 3:38 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]

Nthing impermanence, yes. There's a lot to be said about the "interdependence" side of it too.

As in, even if you do have limited time to live, you're not the only one in the picture of your life – there are others interacting. Even if you have no friends or family, your life touches others, and thus your choices too.

I had a crappy childhood that included consistent, long-term dreams (the kind you have when you're asleep, not fantasies) in which I couldn't see past my 21st birthday. Side note: my therapist told me that sort of dreaming is consistent with kids who grow up in abusive/unpredictably dangerous households. As a result, I lived my childhood really intensely. I figured, if I couldn't see past it, that meant I would either be dead or living something I had no way to prepare for, right? So I might as well pack as many meaningful friendships, experiences, and as much knowledge as I could into that timeframe.

At age 21 I was wrapping up my French degree and earned a full-ride scholarship to finish it in France. 22, I chose to stay in Europe, and went to Finland with some French friends who had jobs at Nokia. (This was 19 years ago.) Four months before my 23rd birthday, a torsioned ovarian cyst burst and caused internal bleeding that would have killed me within a few hours had I not walked to the neighboring women's hospital in Helsinki.

That whole experience made me so grateful for the childhood decision to live my life as I had. I've not had a life that fits any mold, and it's always worked out, sometimes miraculously. Even bad shit, like my first boyfriend who made me homeless when I left him. My thought process was, "rationally I should go back to the US, because no one will rent to me without a contract or a guarantor," as I was a freelancer at the time. But in my heart, I wanted to stay in France. So I lived in hotels, and a few months later, readers of my blog had an apartment they owned open up for rent, which they offered to me. That sort of thing.

It is totally trite, but also true to my anecdotal yet 4-decade-long experience: when you follow your heart, you meet other people like that, and it creates an awesome, if at times imperceptible, virtuous circle.

I do plan for the long-term because if I'm still alive for retirement, I want it to be the best retirement possible. Then I can thank younger me for looking out for myself as I eat stinky cheeses and drink French wines.
posted by fraula at 11:41 AM on October 9 [9 favorites]

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