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Knowing We Must Die, How Then Shall We Live?

Another blogpost from the excellent Casper Ter Kuile

As part of my education to become a minister for non-religious people, I’ll work in a hospital as a chaplain for three months. It’s the part of my training I’m both most excited and nervous about.  Chaplains can be called into all sorts of situations – an unexpected diagnosis, a new birth, serious injury and, all too frequently, death. They’re often the only ones in a hospital who can provide the loving presence and careful attention that medical staff are too overworked to provide.

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Working in a hospital gives a unique perspective on life. Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse wrote this insightful article about the top five wishes of those who are dying. Her list is short and simple, and these are the same themes my student-chaplain friends find time and again. The wishes are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Death isn’t something we usually want to spend much time thinking about, but it’s the one thing we can be sure of. Wayne Muller in his book How, Then, Shall We Live suggests the practice of saying to ourselves ‘I could die today’ each day, together with some mundane act. I’ve been trying it before I get out of bed, which has been surprisingly less macabre than you might expect! Knowing that we will die focuses the mind, clarifies our intentions, and gives us fresh eyes with which to appreciate the world and the ones we love.

What would your day look like if you knew it was to be your last? Who would you speak to? What would you leave aside? Where would you go? It’s amazing how the least important things in our lives can become the ones we spend most of our time on. How can we avoid regretting those same five regrets that Bronnie Ware picked up?

SA’ers around the world are trying to live better, help often and wonder more and by coming together on a Sunday, we remind each other how we can do that. Perhaps a daily practice like this one simple sentence, ‘I could die today’ will help each of us keep our eyes on the prize throughout the week as well.

Casper ter Kuile is training to be a minister for non-religious people at the Harvard Divinity School. He’s the host of Living The Questions, a podcast exploring questions that matter.