What If This Is the Last Time?
The Stoic trick to help you appreciate what’s right in front of you.
Posted October 11, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
I recently visited the woman who used to be my mother. Alzheimer’s has spirited away my old mother and replaced her with a whole new one. This person is volatile and often snippy—so our visits are a challenge. But toward the end of each one, I often get choked up because it occurs to me: There’s every chance this is the last time I will ever see her. She lives 1,100 km away, and she is 97 years old. That thought—This may be it; this may be the last time I lay eyes on this person—changes everything. Every nerve ending opens to her; I drink her in.
What if we could make a habit of attaching that same thought to everything we experience as we experience it? On this (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend, I can think of no better gratitude prime.
The Stoics were all over this thought experiment. Marcus Aurelius used to say to himself as he tucked his children into bed.
Don’t rush this: This might be the last time you do this. There’s no guarantee that either of you will make it through the night...
It sounds like a colossal downer to force ourselves to think the thing we cannot think, but in fact, it’s the opposite. It dials up everything that makes us human. Life suddenly feels staggeringly precious. The next step, urges philosopher William Irwin, is to apply the same “this-won’t-come-again” lens not just to the people and things most important to us but to the mundane stuff we often treat as kind of an irritant in the way of the work we want to get done today. Things like:
- Walking the dog
- Bicycling in the rain
- Making dinner
- Mowing the lawn on a hot day
When you’re in the middle of these tasks—not really seeing the dog bounding ahead to tree a squirrel, or hearing your bicycle tires sizzle through the wet streets, or smelling the odor of the spaghetti sauce or the fresh-cut grass, ask yourself:
What if this is the last time I ever get to do this?
Because the dog dies. Or the bicycle is stolen. Or your kitchen burns down. Or you’re transferred to Alaska.
Whenever I visit my friend Verna, this thought experiment pops immediately into my mind. That’s because her life is an almost mythologically dramatic example of how everything you take for granted can be snatched away at any moment.
Verna was in the prime of life—a whirl of industry and ambition and joy—until one day, a hospital visit for a routine procedure went terribly wrong, and she developed sepsis, and surgeons had to take all four of her limbs to save her life.
That was five years ago.
Since then, Verna has had to build an entirely new life, constrained by what she can still do with three prosthetic limbs. Verna isn’t the kind of person to dwell on the past, so I’ve never heard her say, “You know, I wish I could go back to that day when I caught a wave at Beach Break, off San Juan, and must have stayed on the board for thirty seconds as the barrel curled over me. Or the time I stayed up late with that amazing mystery novel, and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.” But often, she will find herself wishing, Darn, I wish I had even one hand.
That’s worth thinking about next time you mindlessly tie a knot, or pick your nose, or futz with a Rubik's cube, or lace up skates, or make a snowball, or clean up after your dog, or unscrew the lid on a stubborn pickle jar: What if I could never do this again?
Right now, I’m writing this in the mountain town of Revelstoke, British Columbia, where my niece got married last night. It’s early morning, and I’m sipping a surprisingly good cup of hotel coffee. Through the window, I can see clouds curling through the valley. The kids are still sleeping.
It’s so quiet I can hear my heartbeat in my ears. What if this is the last time I ever get to do this—to gather with family and friends (or to travel at all)? To be a parent, able-bodied, pain-free, COVID-free, able to taste this coffee and plan the trip home?
What if this is the last article I ever write?
Or the last one you ever read?