2 Years To Live

"You are scared of dying–and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different than being dead?" -Lucius Annaeus Seneca

My grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2017. After the doctors operated, they estimated she would have 2 good years left. In April of 2019, almost exactly two years later, she passed away.

Our first Christmas after her diagnosis

Two years to live.

I'm sitting here writing and rewriting this and all that comes to mind is the two year sentence. 84 is a pretty long life and she accomplished a hell of a lot, but how do you face up to being told you have two years to live, at any age?

Think about how you'd react in that situation. For me, it's sobering. Nothing clears your head and lights a fire under your ass like being told you have a the Deadline coming up, and fast.

When I was learning Japanese in college, my preferred method of learning to speak was by partying with the Japanese foreign exchange students. On my first day, Toshiki, a 19 year old from Yokohama, taught me the curse words and 'Nampa' - flirting/seduction. I dutifully shared the English equivalent. We were immediately friends, and then he invited me to a house party.

Manabu (left) was a 33 year old dentist. Toshiki in the middle. Johnny is ordering food.

These are not normal house parties. For one, you spend the first two hours cooking, which provides the snacks for drinking, and you get to know everyone by cooking with them. Then the party starts.

The Japanese invited the Koreans, who invited the French, who invited the Germans, who invited the Italians who argued about 'soccer' with the Germans, all exactly how I hoped they would. No one invited the guys from Kuwait because they didn't think girls should party & the girls felt uncomfortable, but later in the year they warmed up to the idea and showed up anyways. I was the only American in most of this and loved it.

The friendships are immediate and intense, as were the rivalries. You didn't dislike someone- you hated their guts. You didn't like someone, you pledged this lifetime and the next to them, nothing held back. I became best friends with Marie, a sun-kissed dirty blond who played soccer for the French Junior national team. 

I remember a night about 8 months after we met. I heard her arguing with someone on the phone on the roof- we had jimmied the roof access door open inside the designated party apartment. Her call was loud and her arms were waving angrily. Not wanting to intrude, I gave her some space and came up a bit later. "What's up, you ok?" 

She turned. Her eyes were wet but her expression was warm. She'd just demoted her boyfriend to ex-boyfriend. "What, why?" I wasn't expecting that, they'd been together for years. Her response- Because she really liked me. But she was scared- she left him without knowing if my feelings were mutual. "Brave girl," I thought.

The feelings were very mutual. We spent hours on the roof that night. It ended with "King, come to France. I'm going to marry you." Except she didn't say marry because the French replace the "rr" sound with this back of the throat purring thing. (I never went to France and I didn't marry her because I was 20 and broke). I'll never forget her.

The point is- my international buddies knew they had one year in California. One precious year under these magnificent circumstances and then a regression back to their ordinary and mundane lives. They would never be together in this place with these people, ever again, and it spurred them on.

There is a fire, a thirst for life, a purpose and urgency that come with understanding you don't have all the time in the world. They committed to living proactively because this year was it- there would be no do-overs. I think it rubbed off a little, because despite my mediocre grades I was conversationally fluent in Japanese in 7 months.

A useful learning aide from one of my Japanese friends.

Here I am 7 years later, feeling a similar sort of urgency only on a much grander scale. My grandmother's two year life sentence made me keenly aware that life is ephemeral. I am alive under miraculous circumstances, and this is it. I want to etch this feeling into my being and know it in my bones, all the time. 

I'm not the first to think this. Far from it.

Over 2000 years ago, emperor philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in his personal journal as a reminder to himself-

"Remember how long you've been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn't use them.
​...There is a limit to the time assigned to you, and if you don't use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return."

And then old Confucious, the man with a witticism and quote for everything,

"Every man has two lives. And the second one starts when he realizes he has just one."

There's also Memento Mori, and Vanitas paintings from the 17th century dedicated to the same idea. They existed to whisper from the walls- remember. Life is transient. You could die at any moment- do not forget it. 

Remember me as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, you soon shall be.
Prepare for death, and think of me

Initially I thought so this was a pretty dark and depressing way of looking at things. I was wrong, because realizing you will die forces you to strip away the unnecessary bullshit you're usually preoccupied with.

Steve Jobs echoed the same sentiments at his famous Stanford commencement address-

“Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.⁣

Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. ⁣

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”⁣

If you haven't, you should watch the full speech. It's good.

It's easy to default to the standard way of being.

Go to work. Pay bills. Write about plans for the future and work on them here and there. But more often than not, our time is used to consume too much cognitive detritus on our phones and laptops, avoid boredom, compulsively buy and one up our neighbors and co-workers with useless stuff.

We lose sight of what matters because we hold ourselves accountable in the same way yoga pants keep waistlines accountable. 

For myself and the waistlines, that's a massive problem.

Complacency and comfort creep quietly. They are insidious and seductive, quiet rationalizations and justifications in the back of your mind. They lull you into going through the motions and seeking short term entertainment, back to short term fun paid for with long term agony, plus interest. 

​But it's hard to be complacent when you know you're going to die, and that's the whole point of this.

​Following my grandmother's death, a single question nagged at me. "What would you do in her situation?"

If you were given two years to live, what would you do?

  • After/if you stopped panicking, what next?
  • Would you be satisfied with the life you had led?
  • What stuff were you chasing that no longer mattered? What would you want instead?
  • Did you have enough put away for medical costs? What about your funeral?
  • How would it change your job?
  • How could you make this easier for the people closest to you?
  • Where in your life were you being a shy and timid soy boy, living from a place of fear rather than chasing possibility or opportunity, and not carpe-ing the diem?

You have no control over when or how you go. There's no guarantee you even have health or sanity until the end, and we all know how this story ends- no one gets out alive.

When I take stock of my fears, dying early—dying before "I have it all figured out" is near the very top, right up there with death or illness touching my parents or siblings.

And when I really think about it, dying early scares me because how I've been living isn't really the living I could be doing - I never gave myself permission to figure out who I actually was. 

I was too busy trying to be normal, blend in, conform. I never followed my curiosity or cultivated my unique weirdness. Every time that voice in the back of my head piped up with "you're too young/old/fat/brown/ etc. to do this," I listened to the voice. "Perhaps you're right, maybe another time."

This is a recipe for disaster. Years of your life go by. Your confidence erodes every time you vote against yourself.

This makes it incredibly difficult to do anything remotely interesting with your life, nor does it prepare you for the hard times! If you don't believe me, I challenge you to think of just one person who accomplished something incredible while staying soft and complacent in his comfort zone.

I can't think of one.

Xenophon wrote about this thousands of years ago-

"I have noticed this point too, my friends, that in soldiering the people whose one aim is to keep alive usually find a wretched and dishonorable death, while the people who, realizing that death is the common lot of all men, make it their endeavour to die with honour, somehow seem more often to reach old age and to have a happier life when they are alive. These are facts which you too should realize (our situation demands it) and should show that you yourselves are brave men and should call on the rest to do likewise."

One day ​hardship will come. An accident or death or illness. It always does. Maybe my mom or dad or a sibling or me. But can grasp at life, or you can prepare. I want to be ready enough, financially, emotionally, with no regrets.

​Ok. Easy enough to say. But how, exactly?

Well, life is for living. I don't believe anyone will figure it out from the sidelines. This led me to commit the next two years to figuring it out through action and reflection.

I won't figure out who I am by doing what I've been doing, so my hunch is to follow one simple directive: seek discomfort.

Not just physical discomfort, but emotional and mental discomfort. I think that's where people discover what they're capable of and who they are.

"Where your fear is, there is your task" - Carl Jung

and to quote Jobs' commencement address one more time-

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

The plan is as follows:

Set a death date 2 years from now.

I chose November 2nd, 2021.

In doing this, I immediately felt discomfort. Panic. Fear. I thought about the things I still wanted to be, do, accomplish. Regrets. There's a lot of stuff bubbling up from the depths.

Next step is to make a list from the above & filter for the stuff that really matters.

Read part two: What really matters?


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