I don’t know how it started, nor why, but I live my life differently because of it.
Every time I walk onto a plane — about twice a month, usually — a question is triggered in my mind. It happens without me actively thinking about it.
Statistically speaking, I know that I have no reason to ask this particular question only when I’m flying, but for some reason, the connotation has been established, and as I walk up those steps, I can’t help but wonder:
“If I were to die today, would I be okay with that?”
I mean, of course, given a choice between life and death, I’ll choose life, and I don’t doubt that there would be some initial shock at the idea of being informed that my plane is suddenly crashing, but still, would I accept it?
I always imagine the shaky movement of turbulence, a flight attendant suddenly announcing a technical failure, with instructions to strap ourselves in and prepare for the emergency procedure. Then I picture screams of disbelief and anger and fear until whatever comes next.
Depending on my state of mind on a particular day, my response to this scenario differs. Occasionally, I see myself getting caught up in that same wave of disbelief, anger, and fear that I imagine everyone else is caught up in, especially if I’m anticipating something big in the near-future.
That said, the vast majority of the time, I actually feel at ease about my reaction in such moments. I see myself absorbing the news quickly and then accepting that if this is it, that’s okay. I’ve lived enough.
And on those rare instances when I do feel cheated, I’m reminded of why that’s not the right reaction and what I need to change in my daily life to ensure that I don’t have that same impulse next time.
A Different Way to Measure Life
There is almost unquestioned belief that lingers around in our culture. That a long life is a good life, and the number of years you get is what really matters.
Granted that most of us don’t see it as being this black and white, but even so, the fact that our prime measure of life is based on pure quantity distorts our attention away from the reality that it’s all far more complicated than that.
In fact, I’d actually argue that how long you live is relatively unimportant in the face of other factors. Maybe a nice bonus, but not a primary criterion for judging whether or not someone has lived well or been fortune.
I’m still in my twenties. Based on the current age statistics of my home country — or really any country at this point — if I were to die sometime soon, that would be seen as tragic, possibly even an example of a life still unlived.
In some ways, maybe there is an ounce of truth to that. If I were to die soon, there is a lot I would miss out on. The possibility of having kids, growing old with someone, a long-lasting career, just to name a few things.
At the same time, however, just experiencing those things in and of themselves isn’t what is important. What is important is how you experienced them, what you felt, and the way you interacted with all that. There are many of us who do experience it all and still don’t live rewardingly.
The quality of your life isn’t measured by long you live, but by how much you live. And the length of time you have only adds value if you are already extracting the full value out of the moment you are given here and now.
The reason the plane question is so valuable is that it reminds me that everything I could want out of life, I already have. And for some reason, if I don’t feel like that is enough, it’s on me to change things. To live more intentionally, more passionately, and more curiously.
So many of us simply exist for something so far into the future that we forget that we’re cheating ourselves out of time. Occasionally, that’s necessary. But it becomes a habit, and at that point, it doesn’t matter how long you have.
The Magic of Dilating Time
Everybody gets the same number of hours in a day, but not everybody experiences them in the same way. In fact, our experiences differ quite a bit.
We know that time is relative, and a minute you spend deeply engaged in a meaningful conversation with someone dear to you is felt in a manner that is different from a minute you spend waiting for a train at the station.
Similarly, a walk in nature where you make an active effort to attend to the beauty of the different trees and leaves and flowers around you will be experienced differently than the same walk spent mindlessly ruminating.
Not only will your experience be better in the first scenario, but your memory will be richer, too, and that will give you more to look back on and enjoy.
In our day to day life, there are ways to dilate time. In fact, this is precisely why learning to live as much as possible is so much more valuable than arbitrarily living as long as possible. The latter just gives you days. The former, however, allows you manipulate those days and get more out of less.
Whenever you really pay attention to the novelty around you, you may be able to exact three to four times more out of every single minute than someone who is just nodding along. To quantify that, it means if you kept that up, you would be able to live as much in 20 years as someone else would in 80 years.
These are, of course, very rough calculations, but it puts into context just how much shifting our perspective about time can change things. And fortunately, it’s not an impossible undertaking, either.
You can do this in a couple of ways. The first is to train your attention to be aware of what you take for granted every day, which can be done via daily reminders or practices such as meditation. The second is to simply live and to do more. To learn new things, to see more sights, and to break the routine.
An experience by itself gives you nothing. Everything that is valuable about that experience comes from engagement and focus and awareness.
Personally speaking, if I’m living three to four times more than my default state every minute, I’m completely fine with the idea that this is all I get.
When a painter is deeply engaged with her work, she is not living in the same world as you or me. When an athlete is in the middle of a close game, he is putting more into it and getting more out of it than you or I could.
There are many names for these kinds of experiences — from flow to “being in the zone” to hyperfocus — but what it comes down to is a very passionate engagement with a moment of reality. A complete immersion.
While there are certain characteristics that are often needed for states of mind that go so deep, the will to engage with them grows from our interest.
What you get out of your interactions with your surroundings is directly proportional to what you put in. If you engage thoroughly and passionately, you capture the depth of the experiences that count. If you don’t, well, then you may as well not have had the experience.
Life isn’t a numbers game. The virtue of living an extra few years or doing an extra few things doesn’t by itself change the quality of our time.
Like the painter or the athlete, we have to actively put ourselves in situations that either demand more of our attention or simply ask more of ourselves.
People often list death as a top fear, but death isn’t scary. Never truly living is.
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